Own your power: Replace ‘you’re making me uncomfortable’ with something more direct

By Stephanie Peirolo | Consultant

November 18, 2017 | 7 min read

I recently saw a well-meaning list of phrases women could use to combat sexual harassment. While many were helpful, I was disappointed to see this one:

Seattle-based consultant, Stephanie Peirolo

Seattle-based consultant Stephanie Peirolo / 3% Conference

“You’re making me uncomfortable.”

I began my career in ad sales in rural Washington State in the 90s. Sexual harassment came with the territory. When I negotiated ad buys with men who ran car dealerships they’d try to distract me by asking what kind of underwear I was wearing. They told me that the sales rep who had the territory before me had slept with clients to get deals. When I told them that wasn’t how I worked they said I was a lesbian, because they couldn’t imagine a straight woman not shedding her clothing to make a sale.

In response to this behavior I was told to say, “you’re making me uncomfortable.” It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now.

That’s because it’s based on some destructive subtexts. I have a feeling. Feelings are subjective and make the speaker the problem. If she could just control her feelings, if she had a thicker skin, then this wouldn’t be an issue. It doesn’t assign responsibility to the person doing the offensive act.

It also invites the worst kind of apology, the one where someone does something objectively awful and then says, “Sorry I made you feel uncomfortable.” Which is very different from “I’m sorry I sexually assaulted you on the way home from the client party.”

I was told to say, “you’re making me uncomfortable” because men like to take care of women so it’s more likely to get results. That subtext is It makes me feel icky when you push your dick against me and you don’t want me to feel icky, do you? Please take care of me by not making me feel icky, because I can’t actually take care of myself.

Men don’t want to be perceived as “that guy” – the guy who uses his power and influence to harass women or create a hostile work environment. In that light, “you’re making me uncomfortable” becomes the equivalent of “you have spinach in your teeth”. It’s a woman cautiously telling a man that he is on the verge of being “that guy.” The subtext is I know you didn’t mean it, but some people actually find it offensive when you refer to their breasts in a meeting. We don’t want people getting the wrong idea about you since you’re such a great guy so maybe don’t do that anymore.

It’s time to replace “you’re making me uncomfortable” with something more direct.

“Stop it. This is harassment. It’s illegal and if you don’t stop I’m going to report you.”

Name it. Set a clear boundary with consequences. Own your power.

Unless you don’t have much power. Which some of us don’t. While the media is paying attention to sexual harassment now, especially the harassment of affluent white people, men still hold the power in our culture. HR departments protect the interests of the company, not the employees. Woman who call out sexual harassment place themselves at serious professional risk so we have to protect them from the retaliation and blacklisting that men have used to silence us for so long.

Because men get enraged when you point out offensive behavior that clearly demonstrates they are “that guy.” Whatever they are doing, they have lowered the bar so they can pretend they aren’t that guy. Sleep with the receptionist? Well, it was consensual. Make jokes about rape or oral sex in a staff meeting? We’re creatives, these men will say, we don’t follow the rules, women are too sensitive, everyone is too politically correct. It was just a joke. If you challenge their carefully curated notion of themselves by calling out intolerable behavior they will get furious and retaliate.

“Stop it. This is harassment. It’s illegal and if you don’t stop I’m going to report you.”

I once worked at an agency that expressed their “creative” culture that by doing crazy quirky things like hanging blowup sex dolls from the ceiling in the all-male creative department. It was an agency tradition to take newly hired employees into a trailer. Then the white male leaders, partially naked, would leap out of hiding with an offer letter. When I told them to stop it because it was wrong and we were opening ourselves up to legal action I was told I was ruining their culture. One even said “My wife works. I have two daughters,” as if that made his behavior less awful.

Soon after, he and two other male agency leaders took off their shirts in a meeting I was running. I ignored them and continued my presentation. Two put their shirts back on, embarrassed. But the father of daughters sat glaring at me, filled with rage, his naked belly pressed up against the table.

“Stop it. This is harassment. It’s illegal and if you don’t stop I’m going to report you.”

I left that agency, but I know not everyone has that option. When you’re 22 years old and buried under student loans you probably won’t turn down an offer letter even if it’s delivered by a pasty middle aged white guy leaping out of a bathroom in his boxer shorts. When I was in my 20s I was a single mom with two kids and I took all the sexual harassment that those car dealers dealt out because I needed that job.

So if you can’t afford to get fired or blackballed, if you have to default to the old fashioned “you’re making me uncomfortable,” or even say nothing, do what you have to do. Don’t be ashamed. It’s not your fault. Stay in the business if you can. Stay until you get enough power to wield it to change things for women who follow you. Then you can use the executive version of that line.

It goes like this:

“You’re fired.”


More from Advertising

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +