When President Donald Trump paused a diplomatic call to tell reporter Caitriona Perry that she had a “nice smile on her face,” Perry initially laughed it off.
While Perry later called the moment “bizarre,” some took Perry’s initial response as an indication that she took President Trump’s comments in “good humor.” But, for many other women, the moment was a reminder that there’s still often no good way to respond to sexual harassment, uncomfortable comments or sexism in the workplace.
It’s well documented that most women don’t report experiencing sexual harassment, primarily because they fear retribution, humiliation and damage to their careers or reputation. A 2012 study found that women often react passively to sexual harassment, even when they believe that they’re the type of person to call out the behavior. It’s the norm to stay silent in Perry’s field, as well: A study from the International Women’s Media Foundation found that nearly 48% of female journalists have experienced sexual harassment on the job — but only about 17% reported it. Some women have anecdotally said that their bosses or co-workers tell them to just “laugh off” harassment or take it in stride. And many women have said that their first instinct when they’re the subject of inappropriate comments is to just “laugh it off,” hoping that it will stop or quell the behavior.
Even Ivanka Trump, White House adviser and first daughter. In her 2009 book The Trump Card, she wrote about being cat-called by construction workers on development sites. “I’d laugh it off and act as it it were no big deal,” she wrote about her response after the construction workers realized she was the boss’ daughter. She also discussed struggling to figure out the best way to respond in these incidents. “I kept reminding myself, my new boss would be observing my reaction, which meant that if anything like that happened it would put me into an uncomfortable, no-win situation. If I ignored the inappropriate remarks, I might come across as weak. If I responded too harshly, I’d be a tightly wound witch.”
“Sexual harassment is never acceptable, and we must stand against it,” she added in the book. “At the same time, we must recognize that our coworkers come in all shapes, stripes and sizes. What might be offensive to one person might appear harmless to another. Learn to figure out when a hoot or holler is indeed a form of harassment and when it’s merely a good-natured tease that you can give back in kind.”
For many women, Perry’s experience was a real-time example of the dilemma many women face in their own workplaces: how to best respond to inappropriate comments coming from a person in a position of power over you. “If women laugh or smile in response to being abused or harassed, it’s an act of self-preservation,” one Twitter user wrote.