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Men, Women, and Sexual Harassment

Will workplace sexual harassment ever stop?

 Konstantin Mironov 123RF
Source: Image ID : 97118151 Media Type : Vector Copyright : Konstantin Mironov 123RF

Where there are men and women, there will be sexual harassment. After 35 years of conducting training on preventing sexual harassment and being an expert witness in sexual harassment cases, I believe this is the case, as little has changed in that time.

Recent headlines regarding New York's governor Andrew Cuomo seem to support this. According to the New York Times, Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former aide to the governor, accused him of sexually harassing her last year. She told the Times that Mr. Cuomo, 63, had asked her about her sex life and whether she had ever had sex with older men. On one occasion, Ms. Bennett said, she was alone with Mr. Cuomo at his State Capitol office when he asked whether she thought age mattered in romantic relationships. She interpreted the remark as an overture to a sexual relationship. "I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared," Ms. Bennett told the Times. Another former aid alleged that Cuomo had kissed her on the lips. Finally, a third woman reported that he had put his hands on her cheeks during a wedding reception and asked if he could kiss her.

Although researchers have examined many different aspects of sexual harassment—such as the frequency of charges, the experiences of different types of workers, and promising prevention strategies—there remain unanswered questions about sexual harassment's impact, scope, roots, and reach. In particular, too little research has focused on gender differences in sexual harassment charges and how gender may play a role in where claims arise and are targeted. A deeper understanding of women's and men's different experiences and the role of gender in the occurrence of sexual harassment may help identify specific problems and areas where targeted interventions are most needed.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) Guidelines on Sexual Harassment defines sexual harassment as:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature can be verbal (jokes, innuendos, suggestive comments) or nonverbal (inappropriate touching, ogling, posters, e-mails, staring at body parts, leering, whistles, brushes against another's body, and behaviors up to and including sexual assault or rape). According to the EEOC, retaliation against someone for seeking help, filing a complaint, or participating in an investigation also violates the policy and the law.

Ideally, your organization promotes a safe and harassment-free work environment for all its employees, both men and women; its leaders are well aware of their legal responsibilities and act as role models to maintain a respectful workplace for everyone.

Why Policies Aren't Enough

Some people think that having a policy in place will stop bad behavior. As witnessed in the press, the reality on TV, and in EEOC-filed cases, there continue to be a lot of people out there, predominantly men, who continue to test the workplace waters with their sexual remarks and behaviors, in spite of policies at their organizations.

Does he harass her, or she harass him? Both women and men can be sexual harassers or recipients of harassment. In 2020, there were 11,497 sexual harassment allegations filed with the EEOC. While there are a few cases of men harassing other men, women harassing other women, and women harassing men, the overwhelming majority of the EEOC cases filed involve men harassing women. Because most sexual harassers are men and most of those harassed are women, efforts to minimize sexual harassment tend to focus primarily on that dynamic.

Who Is Most Likely to Harass?

Sexual harassers come in all colors, sizes, and shapes. It would be great if we could say that all male sexual harassers were 6 feet tall, Caucasian, and muscular, with brown wavy hair and a mustache. Then we'd know what to watch out for. But we can't. We knew of one man in a wheelchair who had the habit of rolling up behind women and caressing their butts to get their attention.

Because sexual harassment is at its core about power, one characteristic that sexual harassers do tend to have in common is power. Either they have assigned power (your boss, director, CEO) or they perceive that they have power over you. A perfect example is when President Clinton was asked why he sexually harassed Monica Lewinsky; he replied, "Because I could."

Combatting sexual harassment requires an intentional, comprehensive focus on all workers' real-world experiences in all industries. Only through such a focus can workplaces and policymakers identify and target the different factors such as systemic power imbalances, gender stereotypes, and gaps in workplace protections that influence when and where sexual harassment occurs.

Note: Everyone should understand the laws that can protect them in the workplace. These include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that defines sex discrimination; the Pregnancy Discrimination Act included under Title VII; the Equal Pay Act, which requires equal pay for essentially the same work done by men and woman at a particular company; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 that looks at unfair pay and the time frame for filing a discrimination charge; and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) Guidelines on Sexual Harassment. Refer to the website to learn about these federal laws and others (discrimination, harassment, related retaliation, and a hostile work environment based on race, sex, age, religion, national origin, disabilities, veteran status, and color) that may impact you or your colleagues. Check your individual state's laws for similar regulations that protect your rights. Some state laws also prevent discrimination based on marital status and sexual orientation.