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What Makes a Safe Space Safe

Recently I was part of a discussion centered around the notion of creating “safe spaces” for women in a retreat or conference situation…a safe space meaning “a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment or any other emotional or physical harm.” (Oxford Dictionary).

nancy mendelson hertelier

It was an all-women discussion, by the way, and for a few, a safe space meant a man-free zone. Interesting, I thought, given that in my experience, a safe space had nothing to do with gender – yes, men may have tried to keep me down (discourage someone or prevent them from doing something)…but it was generally women who tried to put me down (to make someone feel silly or not important by criticizing them).

The conversation jogged my memory back to an incident in the schoolyard when I was in 3rd or 4th grade. I was talking with a girlfriend during recess when a classmate – a boy - tapped me on the shoulder and, as I turned around, sucker-punched me in the stomach for no apparent reason. I never learned why he did it, or if I did, I don’t remember. What I do remember was how it caught me off guard and how much it hurt physically…but even more painful on a whole different level was when the popular girls at school tried to make some of us “underappreciated” girls feel “less than.” And here I thought girls were supposed to stick together! Both behaviors, I learned, are forms of bullying.


“Boys tend to be physically aggressive when bullying. Girls tend to bully other girls indirectly through the peer group," reads an article for Middle Earth, an organization whose mission it is to provide individuals, primarily youth, with prevention and intervention services to help them develop into responsible self-sufficient members of the community. “When boys engage in bullying behavior, they tend to bully both boys and girls equally, while girls tend to bully mostly girls.” Have experienced each of these very same scenarios as an adult in various work environments.

nancy mendelson hertelier

Although I certainly respect the opinion that a safe space for women to express themselves means “women only,” I can’t help thinking about how counterintuitive this is to becoming effective leaders. As women in leadership roles, we need to be comfortable to speak freely to a diverse population…especially in hospitality, where the core of our industry is inclusivity and making people feel welcome at our properties, destinations, businesses, conferences and organizations.

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