Sexual harassment at work

March 5, 2013

Sexual harassment is like love. It’s hard to define, but you know when it’s happening to you. And what one person thinks is sexual harassment is another person’s bit of fun. Just like love.
Some commentators are taking the view that there wouldn’t have been any complaints if Lord Rennard looked like George Clooney, others that it is a lot of hot air about something trivial, or it was of it’s time, or the women themselves should just shape up and brush it off. If you can’t stand the heat then get out of the kitchen. And sadly, it has often been women saying the latter.
I think they miss the point.

Firstly the phrase sexual harassment covers a plethora of beahaviours; a hand on the knee, a pat on the bum, a grope, leering, derision based on gender, jokes at your expense, coercion and bullying of a sexual nature, displaying porn in the office……… But some people seem to think that as it’s not actually rape, then it’s not really worth taking seriously.  Bloody feminists unable to take a bit of banter and making a fuss.
We all recognise that it can be fine for one person to put their arm round you, make a joke about your love life and pretend to flirt with you whereas another person doing any one of those can feel creepy and uncomfortable. Even worse, it can feel threatening. And if that person has power over whether you keep your job, get promoted, get allocated decent projects, is the owner of the company or whatever then it can be very difficult to say “Oi, leave it out.”
It’s about power.
And even if the perpetrator isn’t in a position of power, the collective may be. By which I mean everyone in that company thinks it is acceptable behaviour so will support the harasser over you. The institutionalised sexual harassment can be nigh on impossible to overpower as an individual. Taking a stand against it can seem too much of a challenge and so unpopular that it wouldn’t be worth working there any more.
This exploitation of power can only happen of course when the recipient feels less powerful than the agressor. That she (and sexual harassment is usually but by no means exclusively, done to women) feels subservient to him . And unfortunately many women have been brought up automatically deferring to men. Even in this century. More men are in positions of power in the workplace than women and some people in positions of power do not recognise sexual harassment, just like some do not recognise any form of bullying.
And no doubt some women who are being sexually harassed also do wonder if they are making a fuss over nothing, even though they are dreading going to work every day in case it happens again. It’s all very well telling people to take it as a joke. It’s not a joke if it doesn’t feel like that. Women need to feel safe in their work environment and know that if they say they find something uncomfortable then they will be listened to, believed and supported.  And the people doing the harassing need to be told to stop and have it explained to them why their behaviour is unacceptable. So they understand what they have done wrong and can know not to do it again.

Some sexual harassment is no doubt nasty and deliberate, but I am sure there is some that is unintentional. But whatever the intention, it is all about how the recipient feels. And if they feel uncomfortable , it’s harassment and needs to stop.


4 Responses to “Sexual harassment at work”

  1. Jess Says:

    Thoughtful thoughts, Sarah! Ah – you reminded me of plenty of anecdotes from my early career! And if you didn’t take it all in good part there was something wrong with you. As much as I wonder how we stood those things I also know my daughter won’t. And as for my son, he will join in September a company which won a 2012 Employer of Choice for Women citation. Ever forward 🙂

    • thanks Jess – yes a bit on the serious side for me but agree things do seem to have improved in most work places. And well done to your son – a job in this day and age! 🙂

  2. georgiemcclarke Says:

    Really good points all made very well; I completely agree. Great post xx

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