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Sexual Harassment

| February 20, 2018

by Jim Bruce

… men and women can both be “victims” and “perpetrators”


Turn on the radio or television, read a magazine or newspaper, surf the web.  You’ll likely hear or see a story about sexual harassment or assault or mischief on the part of someone in power – a broadcast personage, a media executive, a politician, etc. 
If this were the entire story, we might breathe a sigh of relief and say that, while bad, this is really someone else’s problem.  But, what you read about and hear about is only the tip of the iceberg.  The accused here number about 100 powerful individuals.  In each of the years from 2010 to 2017, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received approximately 12,500 complaints of sex-based harassment in the workplace.  Of these 83% were complaints by women and 17% were by men1
However, this too is still only the tip of the iceberg.  Few of the people harassed complain to anyone, much less the EEOC.  The EEOC’s “Report of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace2” and its summary, “Rebooting Workplace Harassment Prevention3,” estimate that 60% of all women employees “experience unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion, or sexually crude conduct or sexist comments in the workplace.”  A similar estimate for men is likely to be in the 15% to 20% range based on earlier studies.  In January 2018, there were 125 million full-time employees in the U.S.4  So, now we are talking about really big numbers of people.
To understand harassment, we need to understand what it is, what actually constitutes harassment.  The U.S. EEOC5, defines sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  It includes unwelcome sexual advances (including rape and other sexual violence), requests (including quid-pro-que proposals) 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.  Sexual harassment, in addition to violating an organization’s policies may also violate state and federal law.
The EEOC definition also states that the “victim” as well as the “harasser” may be a woman or a man and does not have to be of the opposite sex; that the harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, someone else acting for the employer, a supervisor in another area, any other worker, or a non-employee such as a customer; that the person harassed does not have to be the “victim” but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct; and, that unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury such as discharge of the employee.  And, as noted earlier, the harasser’s conduct must be unwanted.
Said differently, harassing conduct includes sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a perceived sexual nature.  Some conduct included in the definition may be sexual or not depending on context.  This would include hugging, kissing, physically touching the individual, standing close, displaying images of a sexual nature, etc. 
Even though these words may seem to be clear, according to a study in The Economist6, what they are seen to mean will depend upon one’s age and nationality.  For example, men and women in the U.S. were asked whether a man asking a woman, not his romantic partner, to go for a drink would be sexual harassment.  Older individuals, both men and women, responded that it would not be harassment.   Some 15% of women of age 25 said it would be harassment as did about 20% of men of the same age.  French men and women respond similar to those in the U.S. while essentially no one of any age in Britain, Germany, or Sweden sees this as harassment.
Additional insight into the magnitude of the issue is found in an article by Heather McLaughlin, “Who’s Harassed, and How?” which is in the Harvard Business Review Collection “Managing #MeToo7.”  McLaughlin’s reports, based on a study of women who were 30 to 31 years old who were asked if they had experienced one or more harassing behaviors in the past year.  More than a third of the women responded affirmatively reporting these unwanted experiences:   

  • 21% said that they had experienced staring or leering,
  • 20% that they were the object of suggestive comments,
  • 19% that harassers tried to engage them in a discussion of sex,
  • 8% harassers displayed offensive images,
  • 6% that they were repeatedly asked out,
  • 5% that individuals tried to start a sexual relationship with them, and
  • 5% that they had experienced unwanted touching.

Given the pervasiveness of all forms of sexual harassment, what should be done?  Organizations with 15 or more employees are required by federal law to have policy statements regarding sexual harassment which include the process for an individual to follow in reporting sexual harassment.  Universities often have extensive documents for both employees and students.  (As an example, MIT’s current plans for employees can be found here and for students here.  And, a primer for faculty can be found here.)
However, just having policy statements and even training surrounding them, is not likely to significantly reduce harassing behaviors such as noted earlier as well as comments to devalue the input of women professionals in work situations.  Michael Kimmel, in his essay “Getting Men to Speak Up” which also appears in the HBR Collection “Managing #MeToo7” makes two suggestions in a scenario:
“Adeline is sitting in a meeting.  She is the only woman in the room.  Rob is in the meeting, too, and he makes a sexist comment.  The room goes silent.  Everyone’s attention is on Adeline:  Is she going to do something, say something?  Oh, God, there she goes, many of the other men are saying to themselves.  Big eye roll.  She’s gonna call him out and make everyone feel bad.  And Adeline has to decide if she’s going to say something and make everyone miserable, or swallow it and stay miserable herself.
“After the meeting, one of Adeline’s colleagues, Fabrice, privately apologizes to her for Rob.  ‘I’m really sorry about what he said in there,’ Fabrice says.  ‘I didn’t like that at all.’  Fabrice thinks he’s being supportive, but he’s actually introducing another dilemma for Adeline.  Does she nod politely and thank him?  Or does she say, ‘Uh, where were you when I needed you?’”
Kimmel is making several general points here.  First, he is saying that harassing behavior should not be tolerated by anyone who observes it.  Second, that sometimes, the only observer is the “victim” and she or he needs to have the courage (and expect the support of others) to speak up.  And, third, “bystanders,” observers of the behavior, need to step up as well and call out the inappropriateness of the comment thus supporting the “victim.”  
It may be very scary for the victim, or an observer, or a bystander to take a stand.  In doing so, he or she may be ridiculed or marginalized unless he or she knows that others will support them.  Our organizational culture really needs to change so that supportive behavior is the norm. 
In last week’s Tuesday Reading, The Leader’s Role in Creating an Inclusive and Engaging Work Environment, Brian McDonald spoke of the leader’s responsibility to create a more inclusive environment and gave several examples of what a leader can do to move her or his organization towards more inclusiveness.  Reducing harassment needs to be on that list as well.
Now, a final word:  Society’s focus today on significantly reducing harassment does not mean that strong, collaborative work relationships between men and women need to change.  After all, they are work relationships.  In a desire to make relationships safe from complaint, men cannot let the pendulum swing so far that they seek to avoid women in the workplace completely.  That’s unnecessary, unfair, and illegal.  Such action would deprive women of opportunities simply because they are women.  If you are a leader you need to interact with women and men on your team and in your sphere of influence in similar ways so that everyone has equal opportunities to contribute to your organization’s goals.  Brad Johnson and David Smith, in their Harvard Business Review article, “Men Shouldn’t Refuse to Be Alone with Female Colleagues8” write:  “To build closer, anxiety-free working relationships with members of the opposite sex, thoughtful men will be well-served by having more, not less, interaction with women at work.”
As you reflect on your coming week, take some time to consider your own speech and actions, and work to eliminate those that others might see as harassment.  And, commit to stepping up when you see others being harassed as well as when you are harassed.  It takes courage to begin to take these steps but they are becoming a hallmark of a leader.
Make it a great week not only for you but for those around you.
.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Alleging Sex-Based Harassment (Charges filed with EEOC) FY 2010 – FY 2017.
  2. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, July 2016.
  3.  U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Facts about Sexual Harassment.
  4. The Statistics Portal, Monthly Number of full-time employees in the United States.
  5. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,  Rebooting Workplace Harassment Prevention
  6. The Economist Data Team, “Over-friendly, or sexual harassment?  It depends partly on whom you ask,” November 17, 2017.
  7. Joan Williams and Suzanne Lebsock, Harvard Business Review Collection of Articles Managing #MeToo, Harvard Business Review, January 2018.
  8. W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith, Men Shouldn’t Refuse to be Alone with Female Colleagues, HBR, May 5, 2017.