Facing Toxic Workplaces, Women Need to Be “Type R”

The authors of a new book on the importance of transformative resilience draw lessons from the #MeToo movement.

A steadfast-looking business woman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Wendy R. Anderson spent years navigating leadership in largely male environments, working six to seven days per week. As a deputy chief of staff in the Department of Defense, she found herself chronically stressed and ultimately made the difficult decision to leave government after taking a senior role that wasn’t the right fit in another department.

Anderson is now a high-profile national security sexual harassment advocate who has helped build the momentum of the #MeTooNatSec movement. One of the most positive outcomes of the painful experience of leaving government has been an emerging sense of strength that has been foundational to her decision to contribute to #MeTooNatSec—a group of what is now more than 200 women from diplomats to ambassadors to present and former service members increasing awareness of sexual harassment and assault of women in the national security community.

Type R book jacket.

“I’m just not afraid anymore. To me the most important things I have to lose are less important than what I have to gain by speaking out,” Anderson says. The group of women at #MeTooNatSec state that a culture of sexual misconduct has held them back or forced them from their jobs. Anderson herself says that in order to feel she would be taken seriously, she had to consistently ignore sexist remarks and jokes and situations that created an unsafe environment for women. “It was always a set of trade-offs that seemed patently unfair, very unjust, and violating.”

After years of ignoring signs of stress and burnout, she used the break she took when she left her job to measure new professional opportunities. Through a period of transition, she reflected with family, friends, mentors, and colleagues, sought out counseling, and experimented with different types of work while cultivating the skills that would allow her to grow from these difficult times.

Wendy has now reached out to 40–60 women in the national security executive branch to garner their support and has brought new public awareness to the issues she experienced alone for so long. And she has supported other women like Jenna Ben-Yehuda, the co-author of the #MeTooNatSec letter, and helped secure opportunities like a recent invitation to the State of the Union to increase the profile of the platform.

“I don’t just speak for myself. I speak for a whole community of people,” says Anderson. This includes female family members who have not been able to speak up in other circumstances. “Every time one of us speaks out, another woman feels empowered and confident to do the same.”

In our new book, we identify the individuals, leaders, businesses, and groups that exhibit transformative resilience—the ability to transform challenge into opportunities, innovation, and growth. We call them Type R’s. By drawing on our own decades of professional and personal experience and numerous years of research across psychology, sociology, behavioral economics, neuroscience, business, and current affairs, we have come to believe that though resilience or the notion of bouncing back is important, it’s not enough. Returning to where we once were is not only a poor choice—it’s often not possible. This makes transformative resilience the new paradigm for our time. And it makes the Type R skills—from finding a healthy relationship to control to continually learning, adapting, calling upon a sense of purpose, leveraging the support of others, and actively engaging in problems we face—all the more critical.

Even with growing public awareness and decades of advocacy for gender equality, progress has been uneven. Up to 85 percent of women in the American workplace face sexual harassment. And research at the University of Minnesota suggests that women in positions of authority may face it more often to “put them in their place.” These behaviors are associated with absenteeism and poor mental health among female workers. This comes atop the fact that working women continue to juggle the additional pressures of our increasingly accelerated and turbulent world. It couldn’t be a more important time for women to cultivate transformative resilience and create shared progress.

While women and their male allies have to continue to address structural inequities and the root causes of harassment and discrimination, a collective ability to reframe has made groups of women not only able to contextualize the challenges they face but more able to transform them into opportunities to grow, cultivate resilient mindsets, and create positive change.

Research suggests they’re not alone. Take for instance the research that Carol Dweck undertook at universities in the Northeast investigating how negative assumptions about young women’s skills impacted their performance and desire to remain in mathematics programs. Over the course of a semester, the researchers interviewed the female students about their sense of belonging in the math program as well as their thoughts about their own abilities and about stereotyping.

After surveying the women and separating them into groups with rigid thinking about the ability for growth and those with more robust mindsets, they found that the young women with a fixed, less resilient mindset and those seemingly with less support became increasingly alienated.

In comparison, the women with a more resilient and growth-oriented mindset were disturbed by the stereotypes they faced about women and math. But they reframed and separated the discriminatory behavior of certain professors and others from their own abilities and continued to thrive. They maintained a sense of belonging and as such had better grades and planned to continue studying in the mathematics programs even when facing prejudice and setbacks that were devastating for others.

In complementary and parallel ways, groups with a Type R outlook are able to reframe impediments and the stresses they face and incorporate them into their own process of growth and problem-solving while continuing to advocate for change. They also often find that these challenges serve to create greater cohesion, support, and understanding among themselves.

Type R’s ask, what can I learn from this difficult experience? How does it provide opportunities for building new skills or connecting with others? What doors does it open to make change in myself and advocate for change in the larger world? It isn’t simply what happens to us but how we respond to what happens that has the greatest effect on the trajectory of our lives following adversity.

We would never ask for adversity—particularly sexual harassment, assault, or discrimination, which can’t be condoned and that often leave significant emotional and physical injuries that must be attended to. That said, research across thousands of individuals of varying ages shows that exposure to some adversity ranging from moderate stressors to severe hardships allows us to continue to evolve and develop our skills and that those resilience skills carry over from one circumstance to another. It may be that experience with a moderate number of hardships strengthens a belief in ourselves, or in a group of which we are a part, and in our ability to cope with the challenges the world presents us. Additionally, how we analyze the causes and outcomes of adversity, how we shape our stories, and whether we can find meaning in them affect our capacity for transformative resilience.

Given ongoing research that shows the extent to which we influence the emotions and behaviors of those in our immediate and extended social networks, our own ability to transform challenges has a significant impact on others. A group’s ability to shift toward Type R can be as simple as having one person introduce a new compelling frame for addressing adversity that others can build upon, whether they’re leaders, followers, agnostics, or supporters of the shared will of the group. With the challenges we face, we must learn to adapt, mobilize our inner strength, and cultivate clear judgment amid the uncertainty, change, and stress that we face.

That recognition may seem daunting at first, particularly given that we’re often blindsided and catapulted into it by uncomfortable circumstances. But with the support of the Type R mindset and skills and the ability to harness the power of the storms on the horizon, we can create significant new opportunities for ourselves. Much of the #MeToo moment has been about just that. What opportunities it will open for the future of women at work is still yet to be seen. But we are hopeful.