Sexual Harassment: New Emphasis on an Age-Old Violation

Approaches that reduce risk of rape show promise for stopping sexual harassment

Posted Jul 31, 2018

For a century, movie people have snickered about the “casting couch.” To win roles, Women actors have felt pressured to have sex with male producers and directors. Then in 2017, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was unmasked as a serial sexual predator, a revelation that has reverberated loudly around the world.          

In the workplace, sexual harassment is rife. A 2016 report by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), shows that, depending on the industry, 25 to 85 percent of women and 10 percent of men report offensive sexual remarks, jokes, threats, groping, intimidation, and “sextortion,” feeling required to provide sex to get hired, keep jobs, or advance.         

The National Women’s Law Center reports that harassment is particularly prevalent in:         

Traditionally male industries—construction, finance, banking—where some men view women as interlopers.        

Service industries that involve tipping. Workers often face unwelcome touching and demands for “special services.”        

Low-wage industries—farm workers, hotel room cleaners—where union protections are rare and workers have little bargaining power.         

Jobs involving significant gender disparities. When one gender substantially outnumbers the other, those in the minority often face harassment.          

Sexual harassment represents the intersection of power and hostility. Those in charge, usually men, have power over subordinates, often women. But as increasing numbers of women rise to positions of power, some of them harass men. The EEOC reports that from 1990 to 2009, complaints by men doubled from 8 to 16 percent.         

Compared with those not represented by unions, unionized workers usually face less harassment. Workers can file grievances with their union representatives. But unionization is no guarantee of safety. Some harassers are union officials.

Why Most Victims Remain Silent

The EEOC estimates that 75 percent of sexually harassed employees never report it to their supervisors or union representatives. Instead, they avoid harassers, or ignore, downplay, or simply endure the abuse. Reporting is the least likely response.         

Employees don’t report for many reasons. Some fear they won’t be believed. Others suspect their complaints will be ignored. Some don’t want to get the harasser fired. And many fear retaliation.         

Fears of reprisals are justified. One study showed that 75 percent of employees who protested workplace harassment faced retaliation: whispering campaigns, hostile confrontations, sneak attacks (computer sabotage, dead mice on desks), bad performance reviews, and demotion or firing.          

Employee Training and HR Departments May Not Help

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment violates employee civil rights. Since then, to avoid lawsuits, many companies have instituted sexual harassment training.  But it’s often perfunctory—a brief video or PowerPoint—developed more to shield employers from liability than to stop abuse.         

Meanwhile, human resources (HR) departments have contradictory missions—helping employees while also protecting the company from liability. When the two have conflicted, many HR departments have sided with the company against complaining employees.          

But since 2010, the EEOC has recovered $700 million from employers found guilty of tolerating hostile work environments or failing to prevent sexual harassment—and corporate chiefs and HR leaders have realized that sexual harassment is bad for business.

Keys to Workplace Culture Change

Sexual harassment is a subtler form of sexual assault. Rape became a political issue in the 1970s with the rise of the women’s movement and publication of such books as Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape by Susan Brownmiller (1975) and Battered Wives by Del Martin (1976). But it took twenty years of political activism, lawsuits, and legislation for police departments to treat rape victims sensitively and for the criminal justice system to punish rapists as the violent criminals they are. That struggle is far from over. Today, most Americans consider rape a heinous crime, but some still believe that “boys will be boys” and “women ask for it.”          

Sexual harassment is as old as patriarchal civilization, but it’s become a political issue only recently. It will take time for workplace cultures to shift to the view that it, too, is a crime.           

How can that change be hastened? Culture change often happens slowly. It’s been more than fifty years since the Surgeon General urged Americans to quit smoking, but in 2018, around 17 percent of American adults still smoked. However, when institutions revise their rules and a critical mass of leaders get on board, culture change can occur surprisingly quickly. That’s been the case with successful rape prevention programs

To stop sexual harassment, experts recommend:          

• Ongoing blunt talk at every level. Top executives, managers at every level, and HR departments must promote the same message relentlessly: Sexual harassment is not tolerated. It’s wrong—and bad for business. It doesn’t matter how important you are. Harassment will get you severely disciplined and quite possibly fired.         

• Every manager. All managers not just HR, should have authority to receive complaints. Employees who feel comfortable with specific superiors are more like to file grievances.         

• Strength in numbers. Lone accusers typically feel isolated. But when several employees band together, their collective testimony carries more weight. If you feel harassed but don’t feel comfortable reporting it, talk with your coworkers. Discuss what you’ve endured. Organize. Like bullies, sexual harassers rarely limit themselves to one victim. Group complaints are more likely to gain traction.         

No compulsory arbitration. According to the Economic Policy Institute, more than half the nation’s employment contracts now require employees who file harassment complaints to submit to binding arbitration behind closed doors. These contracts perpetuate the problem by discouraging complaints and shielding predators.  In 2017, Microsoft became the first Fortune 500 company to stop requiring arbitration of sexual harassment allegations. Under Microsoft’s new rule, employees who believe they’ve been sexually harassed are free to sue the company. Several state legislatures and Congress are considering legislation to outlaw compulsory arbitration for sexual harassment.        

• No gag orders. Institutions try to protect their good names. When employees win sexual harassment rulings, institutions often insist on non-disclosure agreements, gag orders. Harassed employees can’t discuss their cases or settlements without risking lawsuits and firing. This preserves the institutions’ good names—but also allows harassers to avoid public shaming and often to continue their wicked ways.         

Institutions that hope to end sexual harassment should repudiate gag orders and confidential settlements. Legislators at all levels of government should outlaw them.

Bystander Intervention: Everyone Must Get Involved        

Culture is the sum total of the stories we tell each other. To end sexual harassment, we must hear victims’ stories loud and clear. Gag orders must be prohibited. Adjudication of sexual harassment complaints must take place entirely in public. And everyone must get involved.        

Bystander intervention is a cornerstone of successful rape-prevention programs, and evidence is mounting that it’s also crucial to ending sexual harassment.                 

         • Bystanders can support victims. I heard/saw that. Are you okay? If you complain, I’ll vouch for you. Would you like me to accompany you to HR?Bystanders can also refer victims to resources (below).                 

         • Bystanders can build strength in numbers. Have you heard what X has been saying/doing to Y? Do you know anyone else who’s had similar experiences?                 

         • Bystanders can challenge harassers. Confrontations can range from friendly questioning—Are you aware of what you just said/did?—to blunt recriminations—I’ve seen you say/do that one too many times. I’m reporting you.         

Bystanders may not be present for the more sinister forms of harassment—grabbing, groping, assaults—but harassers often start with public obnoxiousness. Clamping down on it helps prevent escalations.

For culture to change, everyone must get involved. The EEOC says, “Workplace cultures don’t change by themselves. The fight to stop workplace harassment depends on everyone.” If you see something, say something.

For help dealing with sexual harassment, contact:

Equal Rights Advocates

National Women’s Law Center

AFL-CIO

American Association of University Women

References:

Barak, A. “A Cognitive-Behavioral Education Workshop to Combat Sexual Harassment in the Workplace,” Journal of Counseling and Development (1994) 72:595.

Bonate, D.L. and J.C. Jessell. “The Effects of Educational Intervention on Perceptions of Sexual Harassment,” Sex Roles (1996) 11/12:751.

Brooks, L. and A.R. Perot. “Reporting Sexual Harassment: Exploring a Predictive Model,” Psychology of Women (1991) 15:31.

Chira, S. “Why #Me Too Took Off: Sheer Numbers Who Can Say ‘Me Too.’” New York Times, Feb. 24, 2018.

Kearl, H. “The Facts Behind the #Me Too Movement: A National Study on Sexual Harassment and Assault,” (2018) http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/2018-Nati...

Miller, C.C. “Where Can Victims Turn? Traditional Workplace Education Doesn’t Work. Other Methods Do.” New York Times, Dec. 13, 2017.

Tippet, E.C. “Harassment Trainings: A Content Analysis,” Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law (2018) https://ssrn..com/abstract=2994571.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Select Task Force Report on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace,” 2016.

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