In the popular imagination, sexual harassment evokes images of men who ask women on dates and can’t take a hint, or powerful male bosses who request sexual favors from less powerful women. But the scope of unwanted remarks and behaviors go well beyond instances dealing directly with sex.
The term “sexual harassment” can lead to an poor understanding of the full range of abusive workplace behaviors. What is sexual harassment? Sexual harassment stems from highly subtle, interconnected, and systemic behaviors that can be both sexual and nonsexual. Without a proper understanding of how harassment works, it’s easy to miss things that don’t immediately escalate but pull the thread and set genuine sexual misconduct in motion.
In the face of such social and cultural complexity, the temptation is to ban all references to gender, sex, class, and other potential points of controversy. However, we’ve seen that banning all of these behaviors can sometimes cause more harm than good. In fact, discrimination lawyers have said that such sweeping prohibitions tend to be unhelpful and can even inhibit the elimination of workplace harassment…
More and more Americans have grown to consider sexual harassment a problem in the last 20 years. In 1998, 53 percent of adults surveyed by Gallup said that people were too sensitive about sexual harassment. But something has turned in the last two decades: in 2017, 59 percent of adults now say that people are not sensitive enough. The general public is expecting more from businesses than ever when it comes to creating a safe, inclusive work environment. So how is sexual harassment in the workplace still so widespread?
In 1998, the Supreme Court determined that for a company to avoid liability in a sexual harassment case, it had to show its employees were trained and given a way to report offenses. At the time, this ruling was revolutionary. In response to the new federal code, companies across the U.S. adopted training seminars and videos, understanding that any company that shrugged off sexual harassment would now pay a steep price. Companies tracked attendance at trainings, clicked through a PowerPoint, and collected signatures on the employee handbook, and this was unprecedented.
But in recent years, trainings have reinforced gender stereotypes, received more backlash when delivered by women, and failed to promote accountability unless done by a supervisor. Women and minorities who support diversity have even been found to be penalized in performance reviews. If everyone believes training and reporting are integral to corporate culture, then why aren’t they working—and how are businesses expected to meet the standard today?