Sexual harassment is not about sex. It's about power.
Harassment is a symptom of someone misusing power. The harasser presumes he or she is entitled to make judgments, comments, and requests for interaction. Harassers often want attention and feel entitled to have it. Sometimes, the entitlement is based on gender or class privilege. Sometimes, it's based on the person's position in an organizational hierarchy. But, as the New York Times reports, the one thing that men who sexually assault others have in common is the belief that they are not the problem, that it's the victim's fault.
If sexual harassers do not or cannot see themselves as the problem, then no policy and no amount of training on sexual harassment is going to make a difference. This is because the people who need to understand the information don't think it applies to them.
That is why, more than 30 years after the Supreme Court recognized sexual harassment as a form of illegal discrimination, we are still trying to understand how to create a work environment free from sexual harassment.
That harassers don't see themselves as the problem is also at least partly why we continue to focus on the victim instead of the harasser. The EEOC defines sexual harassment as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature." When claims arise, the analysis almost always goes first to whether the conduct was "welcome." From the harasser's point of view, the problem is that the victim was offended.
The power dynamics
Focusing on whether conduct is welcome also ignores the power dynamics involved. As attorney Kate Bischoff explains:
If we actually talk about how this feels or if we challenge a person who has input on our career (including co-workers), we might feel that we're going to make the situation worse. So, we say, "it's okay," "don't worry about it" or even shrug it off. These words or shrug are not words of consent but are words of resignation. We're resigned that this happened, and we want to move on.
So, determining whether the conduct was welcome, or even a more objective view of whether the conduct was "inappropriate," ignores all the other conditions that made the conduct possible in the first place.
It's time to look beyond our policies and mandatory training and address the cultural issues that allow harassment to happen. I love how attorney Jon Hyman frames it:
Any anti-harassment policy, no matter how drafted, is not worth the paper on which it's written unless the company has an overall culture that abhors harassment.
How to effectively address sexual harassment
To effectively address sexual harassment, we need to address the underlying issues of power and culture. Organizations need to stop waiting for victims to become brave enough to speak up. Instead, we need to take the responsibility for creating and maintaining harassment-free workplaces.
Next in this series, I will be explaining approaches to addressing and preventing sexual harassment.
We will also be presenting a webinar: Sexual Harassment at Work: It's a Culture Issue.
Join me on March 27th as I share strategies for creating a safer, more inclusive workplace based on my 30+ years practicing employment law. Saba's Connie Costigan and I will discuss how HR can address sexual harassment and reinforce core values through talent management.
You can learn more and register here.