Channel programs News

Women Of The Channel: Sharing Their Own Experiences With Harassment, Executives Look Back But Vow To Build A Better Future For The Next Generation

Gina Narcisi and Lindsey O’Donnell

When Michelle Ragusa-McBain was fresh out of college, she entered Cisco’s Global Academy as the first step of her 13-year career stint at Cisco.

In the first session, said Ragusa-McBain, a woman who was teaching the global salespeople separated the men and the women, taking women into a room where she told them: ’Girls, I want you to know that there will be married men at the bar, and they will take their rings off and hit on you. Don’t do anything -- it can impact your career.’

’I still think about that to this day. This woman is no longer with this company, but I think, ’Why were we the ones that heard it? Why didn’t anyone talk to the gentlemen?’ said Ragusa-McBain, who now works as senior director of technology, sales and services at OfficeDepot and OfficeMax.

Sexual harassment was the focus at this year’s Women of the Channel East conference, hosted by The Channel Company, as executives came forward with their own stories of physical and verbal harassment and bullying in the workplace.

[Related: Women Of The Channel Panelists Discuss Workplace Harassment: We All Have 'An Integrity Chip ... You Have To Leave It In']

Driving the conversation was the #MeToo social media campaign, which women have been using as a hashtag over the past few months to denounce sexual assault, as well as reveal their own experiences with harassment.

The #MeToo movement became widespread as several technology companies came under fire for high-profile harassment cases in recent months – including Google and Uber – shedding more light on the problems women are still facing in the workplace.

Women in the channel are also running up against these issues. A recent survey by The Channel Company found that out of approximately 220 female respondents, 39 percent said they have been a victim of harassment.

One woman, who wished to remain anonymous, experienced this type of sexual harassment first-hand when she was in her 20s and working with federal systems integrators.

She said was the only woman at meeting with at least 20 men, who she described as ’older men from the ’Mad Men’ generation.’ She was having a conversation when one of the systems integrator employees touched her inappropriately.

’I was shocked -- it just happened in the middle of the conversation,’ said the woman. ’Today, I look back and I think, I would handle this interaction with intolerance, and saying ’absolutely not.’ But do you know what I did? I froze. I didn’t say anything because I was shocked it happened.’

Meanwhile, 26 percent of respondents to The Channel Company survey said while they have not personally been a victim, they know someone who has been, and 29 percent said they have not experienced harassment. Six percent of women feel their stories are still too personal to share.

Victoria Zona, VAR sales manager for data storage technology provider Seagate, hasn't experienced physical harassment first-hand, but she does recall inappropriate conversations and comments throughout her 20-year career in the male-dominated tech industry. The high number of women in IT who have experienced harassment doesn’t surprise Zona.

Some companies are still struggling with how to handle harassment in the workplace, which is one reason why it's important for women to stand up for themselves and denounce inappropriate behavior when they see it, she said.

"I think you need to call those people out directly so they can be aware of what they're doing, especially if you're a woman," Zona said. "Ask them to think about it this way: 'If you were a woman sitting at this table, would you appreciate the comment you just made?'"

When Donna Leonardo, vice president of sales and business development at FutureTech, was younger, she overheard a male co-worker making inappropriate comments on the phone to another female on the inside sales team.

’I turned around and gave him a look. As soon as he got off the phone, he came to me and said, ’I just want to let you know, we’re good friends, I know her.’ I said, I’ll tell you right now that kind of behavior isn’t acceptable here. You need to clean up your act,’ she said.

’When I thought about it later, I didn’t know who was on the other side of that phone,’ she said. ’Maybe she needed my help. Maybe I should have taken it further. At that time, it wasn’t in the news like it is now. Now that I’m older and wiser I would take additional steps.’

Felise Katz, CEO of PKA Technologies, a Suffern, N.Y.- based solution provider and a certified woman-owned business enterprise, believes that even though the IT industry has historically been a "boy's club," it doesn't have to be -- and shouldn’t be -- that way anymore.

"I have a zero-tolerance policy in my company for harassment of any kind -- physical or verbal. We all have to adopt that -- it's very plain," she said. ’People make what they think are innocuous jokes, but it's not acceptable.’

Too many women in tech today still feel as though they don't belong, and the added layer of harassment in the workplace, as well as being on the receiving end of a seemingly innocent nickname, such as ’baby’ or ’honey’ from their peers, partners, or even customers isn’t helping.

Ensuring that women feel comfortable and empowered is crucial when it comes to not only retaining women in technology careers, but also helping them to rise to executive positions, said Julie Ison Haley, co-founder and CEO of Edge Solutions, an Alpharetta, Ga.-based solution provider and certified woman-owned business enterprise.

"Character in leadership is so important, and it really starts at the top to build that culture," she said.

Haley, who now owns her own company, came up in the 1980s during a time when women holding leadership positions in the IT industry were few and far between. While she's made it her mission to help women rise higher in their careers, she believes that men need to be involved in conversations about harassment and the creation of a positive company culture for everyone.

"We can't do it on our own. Men have to be part of the equation and they can be sponsors for women," she said.

The tide is shifting in favor of more women pursuing STEM careers, thanks to educational efforts and programs such as Girls Who Code. And as the incoming generation who were raised consuming technology enters the workforce, an industrywide ’cleanup’ can’t come at a better time, executives said.

’My hope is that as a society, we don’t look at it as an older, or middle-aged white dominated field, but we bring in people of different cultures and backgrounds and males and females,’ said Office Depot's Ragusa-McBain. ’That is better for our products and customers.’

Sponsored Post