Am I Being Sexually Harassed?

Five steps to take if you think you are being sexually harassed at work

Posted Apr 10, 2018

Creative Commons.  No attribution required.
Source: Creative Commons. No attribution required.

With the #metoo movement, it’s become all too evident just how widespread sexual harassment in the workplace is.  Data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reveal that anywhere from 25% and 85% of women report having experienced sexual harassment at work.   Sexual harassment doesn’t have to be perpetrated by a boss, it can be your colleague or a customer or client.  In some cases it may even be someone who is your subordinate.  While some forms of harassment are obvious, such as Harvey Weinstein offering roles to women in return for sexual favors, often sexual harassment occurs in a more subtle but insidious way.   Here are five steps to take if you think you are being harassed:


1)    Talk to others that you trust about what is going on.  You may be certain that you are being harassed, but many victims are not.   So can it be harassment if you’re not even sure about what happened? Absolutely!  Remember that perpetrators aren’t dumb.  They want you to question whether what happened was inappropriate or wrong.  If the lines are clear, then they are clearly at fault.  But if you – as the victim – are questioning your own role in causing the events, questioning whether you are taking things too seriously, questioning whether it was really that “bad,” or questioning whether the perpetrator wasn’t just being playful, this may be part of the design.   


As a thought experiment, imagine that you did something inappropriate to your coworker or subordinate, maybe showing them pornography or making sexual comments about their appearance.  How would you respond if called out on this behavior?  You’d probably try to make light of it, saying you were just joking. You might tell the victim you thought they were “cool” or more easygoing.   You’d probably try to get the victim to doubt his or her own account in some way, perhaps by telling them they are being overly sensitive.  


2)    Consider yourself through the eyes of the perpetrator.  Perpetrators don’t choose their victims at random.  Often they target victims who are young, inexperienced, or suffering economic hardship.   If you are young or just trying to get a start in the field, you probably feel very fortunate to be in the position you are.  It may feel like a privilege to have the attention of male colleagues, even if that attention is inappropriate.  The attention may feel powerful.  If it’s your first job, you’re more likely to be more uncertain of yourself.  You might not even know if this sort of thing is normal in the workplace environment.    


3)    Make a decision about whether to report what is going on.  Some women feel empowered by going forward and reporting the harassment, whether through formal channels – such as reporting to a human resources department or taking civil action – while others report through informal channels, perhaps making your #metoo experience public or telling a friend.  Regardless of what you decide, it’s your decision.   While you may feel that you “should” report the harassment, there are very good reasons that most women don’t, including public humiliation and loss of employment. Unfortunately there is still a culture of disbelief, and many victims get blamed for their roles in events.   And so while it is a personal decision to report, remember that coming forward may prevent someone else from being harassed and may also help to chip away at the culture of sexual objectification in which these sorts of behaviors have historically flourished.


4)    Become aware of the laws around harassment.  The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission recognizes two forms of harassment that are illegal:  hostile work environment and quid pro quo sexual harassment. Hostile work environment refers to a work environment where you are made to feel uncomfortable.  Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a person of power makes employment, benefits, or other perks dependent on a sexual favor.  You will get this if you do that.  While quid pro quo sexual harassment can be found on the basis of a single incident, hostile work environment needs to be more pervasive.  It might be lewd photos, sexual remarks, and unwelcome conduct such as someone blocking your path so you have to come in close contact with the person who is harassing you.  

5)  Seek ongoing help or support.  Don’t underestimate the negative impact that sexual harassment can have on you, and continue to seek out the support of family and friends and, if necessary, a therapist or other mental health professional.   Remember also that you are not alone.  Given the high prevalence of sexual harassment, it is likely – however unfortunate – that the friend or family member you reach out to may also have experienced unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace and can identify with the emotions you may be experiencing.

References

For more information on this subject matter, see: Report of the Co-Chairs of the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace:  https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/upload/report.pdf

Jeglic, E.J., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting you child from sexual abuse: What you need to know to keep your kids safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.  https://www.amazon.com/Protecting-Your-Child-Sexual-Abuse/dp/1510728686