My first experience of sexual harassment was as a teenager, when the father I was babysitting for wanted to show me his "magazine" collection. I declined and lost my job.
The next occurred when I was at university and working for a well-known journalist. For weeks, I did my best to ignore his comments, which became more sexual as the days passed. But when words became actions, and he touched me inappropriately, I walked away from a coveted and very much-needed job.
And it happened three times in my career with the Australian Public Service, including in senior management roles.
In each instance I ducked, I weaved, and I felt bad. I believed that making a "fuss" would bring negative repercussions - for me.
It's not just sexual harassment that can make it hard being female in the workplace. For example, I once worked for a boss who didn't like to travel with women, because he worried about 'office talk'. It avoided accusations and gossip, however because he travelled with men they got valuable 'face time' and experience. And the women rarely made a fuss.
Other challenges came with having children. I can remember applying for a secondment at Parliament House, only to be informed (by a woman) that the hours would not be suitable for a mum with young kids. I didn't challenge this explanation. My strongest emotions at missing out on the job were relief and maternal guilt - why indeed was I choosing long hours at work over tucking my kids into bed at night?
It is only recently that I have started to share these stories with others. And in doing so I find that most women have similar experiences of their own. Many have tended to keep quiet.
Obviously, things have improved over the years. I am currently an executive leader in a company that has zero tolerance for sexual harassment and proactively prepares women for leadership roles. And I know that workplaces like mine are not unique. Smart, successful women are all around us.
But look up and you'll still see a glass ceiling. According to the latest gender workplace statistics, only 13.7 percent of board chairmen are actually chairwomen, ASX boards are 70 percent men while men make up 83 percent of all ASX CEOs.
There are lots of reasons for this, including the well-worn explanation that women tend to spend on average twice as much time as men on childcare and household chores and therefore less time getting ahead in the office.
But might another reason relate to those same sorts of feelings and doubts that I've just been describing? That same sort of reluctance to make waves? To cause problems, be assertive? That instant readiness to embrace self-blame and apologise?
And are these emotions not actually self-imposed, but messages given to us by society over our lifetimes?
Research at Harvard University and elsewhere has shown that - however "feminist" we might try, and feel ourselves, to be - most of us, both women and men, unconsciously and automatically associate words like "assertive", "resilient", "strong" with men, and see women as "sensitive", "empathetic" and "emotional".
Consciously or subconsciously, and be we male or female, many of us will be annoyed by a "pushy" woman, but respect an assertive male.
And in the cut and thrust of corporate life, this means that plenty of us women don't put ourselves forward. We vacillate about applying for a promotion. We don't push for a higher salary despite a national gender pay gap of 14.1 per cent.
Many of us feel that we don't belong in our job or are quick to blame ourselves for someone else's mistake. Sometimes "leaning in" just seems like too much of a stretch. What can we all do to address this?
Needless to say, there's no one easy answer. You can't erase biases that have been instilled from birth with a couple of training sessions. It will take robust corporate leadership at all levels, and at all times to continually model the right sort of behaviour. It will mean identifying and challenging assumptions that each of us might not know we have.
I adopted the approach in my life of "fake it until you make it". I have convinced myself through a million positive affirmations that I am pretty good at my job. In doing so I have cracked the glass ceiling
The moment we can all see our own biases and work with women and men to deal with those that are detrimental to gender diversity will be the moment that we see more women rise to the top.
- Stephanie Copus-Campbell is an energy industry executive, board member and gender equality advocate.
- SMH/The Age