Thursday, November 18, 2010

Countering sexism in the workplace

There are several women at my job who are regularly subjected to what I would call sexual harassment; one of whom has complained to me in the same terms. In none of these cases do the women involved appear prepared to pursue any legal, or even administrative recourse (e.g. physical separation from offending individuals, which could be accomplished routinely), and maintain their working relationships as normal.

I don't want to tolerate sexual harassment or sexism in general in my workplace, so I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to call my coworkers on it without precipitating administrative action that my female colleagues aren't prepared for; but even this means intervening in relationships that aren't strictly mine to address. There's certainly justification in addressing that portion of the behavior which affects me now, but a long-term strategy might be better served by a coordinated approach between mutually concerned colleagues.

Anyone with any insights or advice into these kinds of problems is encouraged to share them below.


Anonymous said...

Sexual harassment while on the job occurs more frequently than some like to admit. As a woman, I can contest. Much of the hesitation of women to confront her abuser and take legal action stems from the discrimination she will receive once she reports. Women, by default, frequently find themselves defending their “honor.” They become targets of accusations and taunts by their peers. The victim finds herself searching for someone to believe her and stand by her. Secondly, women have been socialized to remain silent and to avoid a spectacle. Announcing to the world that she is being harassed is “improper,” and she runs the risk of being labeled an “attention seeker.” My suggestion to you would be to find out why she doesn’t want to report. If she feels up to reporting, make all the effort to stand by her side. Also, there is nothing wrong with you pulling the harasser aside and telling him that you are aware of his behavior and it’s unacceptable. That often works to reduce the likelihood of him continuing his inappropriate behavior. But reporting the incident without her consent, or telling her how she should react in response to her harasser is another form of control-in a sense, you would be dictating the terms of her liberation.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the other poster, I think the first step is to talk to the person/people on the receiving end of this. I think initially just be like "this seems to me to be happening and I don't like it, what do you think?" and then listen a lot. Then say that you want to speak up against the offending co-worker but don't want to do so w/ out clearing it w/ them first. Talk through possible fallout etc. You might also try to map out your work in terms of relationships and leadership - a popular abuser vs an abusive leader vs an unpopular abuser vs a controversial abuser etc will each offer different opportunities and challenges. Over all I'd take it slow, make sure stuff's deliberately done and the ramifications are thought through. Give me a shout on the phone if you want to talk in more detail.
take care,

katie said...


Seems like there are two things you are looking at here:

1.) How this is effecting the women who are being harassed and what you should do about it.

2.) The position this is putting you personally in of having to choose between being complicit in harm by not saying anything, or potentially causing harm by saying something in the "wrong way" that makes things worse.

On the first issue, I agree with Nate about checking in with the women being harassed- saying something like: I'm noticing this harm is happening and I'd like to be supportive or helpful. In what form would you like me to be there for you about this?"

On the second issue, I'm a big fan of the "make the issue overt" strategy. (Which I learned from my awesome therapist.)

That strategy is basically to bring the issue out into the light, talking strictly about how it effects you.

Example: Dude, when you talk to her like that I have no idea what to even say to you about it. It's not cool to talk to women like that at work and I'm sure I'm not the only person here who doesn't like standing by doing nothing about it. It makes me feel like I'm being as much of an asshole as you are. So stop making me feel like an asshole."

Just my two cents.

Having been harassed in a lot of different ways, sexually and otherwise, it's cool when people step up. I think it's also good to talk about how it's making YOU feel. That's hard to argue with, and may take some heat off of the women being harassed. After all, part of the problem is that the dudes are creating a dynamic that implicates and effects everyone within earshot.

Peter said...

My first instinct is to look for another person, specifically another man, who might be willing to be an ally. In his book Guyland Michael Kimmel runs through a similar situation, where a frat pledge is uncomfortable with a practice of the frat. (They stand on the balcony on Saturday mornings to yell things at the women walking from the frat houses to the dorms, and to congratulate the frat brothers walking from the dorms to the houses.) Unsure of how to confront his frat brothers without instantly being alienated, Kimmel suggests the young man hang back next time, remaining silent, and look for someone else with the same look of unease on his face. Approaching that other pledge in private, the two find they share common feelings are are able to approach the group, stronger for their unified front.

Certainly, respecting the wishes of your female colleagues w/r/t official action should be a priority, but knowing that there might be more than one man in the company looking to oppose sexism might cast things in a different light. The more mutually concerned colleagues there are, the easier and more comprehensive any action becomes. I don't know. I feel silly telling a wobbly "have you thought about collective action" but your post didn't indicate much about that possibility one way or the other.

JRB said...


Yes, I wanted to leave it open-ended so we can think about how to create those possibilities when we feel alone.

The suggestions here are all extremely useful in this regard. I will refrain from saying more at the moment, since you have all put me in a thoughtful mood. Additional perspectives are welcome.

Sherlene Oberlin said...

Communication is one of the best ways to solve this kind of crisis in the office. Make your own investigation by talking to the people involved. You can even talk to a counseling attorney for advice to make sure your judgment is fair for both parties. Anyway, it's been 2 years, how did you handle this case?

Sherlene @