Joyce Dubensky on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

At this time of great reckoning, women — at every level of power — are speaking out about sexual misconduct in the workplace.

Joyce Dubensky, CEO of Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, a secular, non-sectarian nonprofit that works to dismantle religious violence and hatred, sat down with She Spends on two occasions to discuss sexual harassment in the workplace and how to better engage male allies. This is an excerpt from our two separate hour-long conversations.   

I read the Rebecca Traister New York magazine feature that explores sexual misconduct and how we’re all complicit; one thing that stuck with me is that these men who harassed young women in the workplace never thought far enough ahead, that their victims would eventually be in a position of power. As a female CEO and someone who has successfully climbed the ranks, can you speak to that?

Sadly, I know sexual harassment is still happening. I think what’s different today is that, particularly now in this moment, there is a societal shift and we’re having an out conversation. I think we’re all smarter about it than when it happened to me.

When it happened to me, it didn’t occur to me that it was happening, as a trend, to other women. I would talk to one or two colleagues; they might have experienced it or not. They might have seen it as an innocent flirtation they’d had, and sometimes it was a friendly flirtation, not harassment. She enjoyed it. He enjoyed it. And that’s all there was.

Women know the separation between the two. They know when it’s a consensual flirtation, an unwarranted flirtation, or sexual harassment or assault.


Men seem to be the ones that don’t know where the line is.

I would say many men -- I wouldn’t say all men. There are increasing numbers of men, and I think there were always men -- who saw women as equals and valuable and intelligent and recognized what respect looked like, and that sexual harassment and sexual touching and sexual intimidation and sexual violence were not acceptable. I’m careful not to say all men and to make that distinction. That said, I think we’re now seeing how pervasive it is, which means the advice I would give would be different than the advice I received when it happened to me.

The advice I would give is there still may be retribution, although it’s illegal, so have an ally and report it. Don’t report it alone. Try to have a senior ally, a woman or a man, with you when you report it. You will be helping all women. I don't think we knew at that time that it wasn't unique to us in the moment. I certainly didn’t know.

Can you speak about your experiences? When we last spoke, we were having a conversation about the news cycle and how it’s triggering.

It’s been re-traumatizing in a way that’s startling. I found myself talking to my husband about things we talked about 20 years ago, 35 years ago, moments in my life that I haven’t thought about for years. They’re all very present right now. I was actually thinking about what is harassment and what is diminishment of women as women, and the continuum of conduct that is involved, because it’s not all of the same ilk. For me, the harassment was not only if I was a little uncomfortable, but it was when I felt threatened and helpless and where I couldn't do anything to protect myself. That included not just men in power, although it also included men in power. In one meeting I was in, I didn’t realize a man I knew was in the room, and he did some unwanted touching, and it was in the middle of a meeting, so I couldn’t speak out. It was really unnerving. It just threw me. Then, I was actually told by people who cared about me, “You can’t report this because he’s too powerful, and it will be your job.” It also happened with regular colleagues. When we had a work weekend away, a retreat with senior staff and the board of an organization, I had a colleague try to physically drag me into his room against my will.

Did that make you feel worse, that it was something that happened to you specifically for whatever reason?

My instinct was not to out anyone and to protect them, even when I ended up having a conversation with our president, about serious harassment. I spoke to him and I didn’t want to name the person. Because I wasn’t clear that I wasn’t part of the reason it happened. I have, I guess what you would call, a friendly extrovert personality, and I’m a hugger. Today, CEOs and businesswomen are often warned, If you hug, you’re not acting like a CEO and professional. You should shake hands to be taken seriously.

What place do you see men having in this conversation?

This isn’t only a conversation about women and women being mistreated. It’s a very deep conversation. It includes implicit bias, societal conditioning [and] our highest values being put into practice. Men can be our partners in this lifetime. They’re our friends and colleagues and sometimes our bosses. They’ve got to be part of the conversation.

- Amanda Eisenberg / She Spends Issue #36