Episode 78: Unpacking Sexual Harassment

When we were called in to dinner he gave my ass an almighty smack and said, ‘Come on, you tart!’
— Broad Experience listener via email

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This is the second of two shows about unwanted attention at work. This time, we look at what sexual harassment really stems from, what we can do to stop it, and why it’s so prevalent in one particular arena.

“Power in academia is pretty absolute in some ways, so if you have a male superstar science professor, he can completely make or break a career.”

Last time we talked about the things that can lead up to sexual harassment or just make women feel disrespected at work – terms of endearment, nicknames, touching, comments about our looks. In this show I wanted to get into sexual harassment at its worst: predatory behavior that can totally poison your experience at work – not to mention your whole life.

Jennifer Berdhahl is a professor of organizational behavior at the University of British Columbia. She specializes in sexual harassment and power and status in the workplace. We spoke on Skype.

She says the problem is most people don’t get what sexual harassment really is. They don’t take it seriously enough. They think it’s about flirtation, sexual desire gone astray…

“But what research really shows is sexual harassment, like racial harassment, is a way of demeaning people based on their sex and gender, making them feel unwelcome or uncomfortable at work…”

She says it’s about asserting dominance over one person or a whole group of people specifically because of their social identity. It’s less about sex, more about control.

“And I think to the extent that we still have this misinformation going around about what sexual harassment is and how serious it is, and what its true underlying motives and/or effects are, we will continue to turn a blind eye to it or not truly understand it in the way that it needs to be understood.”

AM-T: So having said that then, say it’s understood in those terms, that it’s more about power, how do we then go about the next step of trying to stop it or at least curb it?”

“Well I think understanding the different manifestations it takes, so it’s really about sex-based power or gender-based power, so some of the harassment I’ve studied includes harassment by men against other men, so teasing them about their masculinity or status as men. So understanding the broad range of behaviors it takes and recognizing that it’s not just a boss asking a subordinate for sexual favors in exchange for job status.”

That’s the first step. She says the second one is understanding the psychology behind this. We all grow up in a world where men are at the top of the social hierarchy. That’s pretty much baked into our psyches. And she says it’s that gender inequality itself that prompts this kind of behavior…

“For men to define and defend their status based on their manhood or their masculinity, for women, it also empowers women as well to derogate men based on those characteristics as well…so calling men homos or wimps or whatever you might do to try to bring a guy down.”

She says companies though – they’re still talking about harassment in the old way…

“Sexual harassment training programs need to not just go through, this is what you do, this is what you don’t do, a list-wise set of behaviors of dos and don’ts without really explaining where this is coming from and the different ways it might be represented.”

AM-T: “I mean you mention these trainings and I feel like people kind of roll their eyes when they feel they have to have one of these HR trainings, they see it as political correctness.”

“Yep, they do, and I think sometimes it is just kind of like checking the box and making sure the organization has looked like it tried to do something and it’s not as liable any more in case something goes wrong. So there is that kind of cynical side to training. And research shows that kind of training often exacerbates the problem. So people roll their eyes and they feel like, ‘oh, I guess I can’t tell sexual jokes.’  And then they go and push that boundary a little bit, almost as a form of protest, right, like, ‘I can still do this.’”

An amazing number of men still push the boundaries of polite office behavior.  And they can still do this.

I want to tell you a story here about one of my listeners. I was really hoping to get her on the show. At first she agreed, then she backed off. Because she’s afraid of losing her job.

She wrote to me in January and told me about this incident at the company Christmas party. She’s in her late 20s, works in London for a – creative company. And there’s an older man – she says he’s the last of the original partners. And he’s what Kathi Elster from the last show would call a dirty grandpa.

This grandpa has taken a shine to my listener in recent months. So she’s at the Christmas party and she’s wearing a dress with a small slit in the back. He’s standing next to her and puts his hand through that gap, and he starts stroking her back with his thumb while he keeps talking to colleagues. Then when it’s time for dinner he smacks her bottom and says ‘come on, you tart!’ She told me he’s also called her a cow, and a slut, and a slapper. For non British or Australian listeners slapper is another slang word or prostitute. This makes honey or sweetie look charming.

She says she froze when he started touching her. She just didn’t know what to do. And she says that’s the problem. Her generation has no idea how to deal with casual sexism at work, they don’t have a template for it. She’s in a support role at the company, and she says all her other assistant friends have had similar things happen. But they all minimize it by telling themselves oh, they’re old men, they’re dinosaurs, they don’t know any better.

She told me, ‘We all know it’s wrong. But we want to keep our jobs.’

I told Jennifer all this.

“Yeah, that’s really bad. That is the main reason why people don’t speak up about this. The overwhelming percentage of people do not speak up about their experiences of sexual harassment. A survey in Canada in 2014 showed that 80% of people who experienced sexual harassment in the workplace never told anyone because of fear of retaliation. And so that just shows you again…how lopsided our reasoning is around this behavior, how likely it is that a) that the perpetrators usually have power over the victims, that’s why they’re in a position to retaliate or connected to people in a position to retaliate, and the victim is often portrayed as the problem, once the victim comes forward and says hey, this happened to me.”

As for what to do about it, we talked about this in the last show. And even though Jennifer spends her working life steeped in this stuff – but she doesn’t have a magic bullet either. She says if you react with anger then in all likelihood you’ll hurt yourself and your career. But she does say you should report it. And you can do yourself a favor by writing it all down.

“So documenting it is really, really important, if even just for your own sanity, keeping careful notes and records of what happens. And reporting it as soon as you can especially directly to the harasser and documenting that you have expressed your desire for that to stop. You can do it in a polite way, starting there, but making sure it’s been communicated that you don’t welcome this behavior, you find it inappropriate.”

Then it’s a question of going to the next person up from the person doing the harassing, so if it’s your supervisor, try going to his supervisor…

“You have to keep going up until you feel safe and the organization has to understand that is the proper practice and they don’t delegate the complaint back down, they take responsibility at the level that it is brought. Because that’s a huge problem too, these people are connected to eachother and cover for eachother.”

Of course not all companies even have HR departments, and not all HR people are effective…

AMT: “This young woman, I asked her, when she said ‘I’m not going to come on the air after all,’ I asked, have you said anything? She said there’s no point going to HR because the HR director is a notorious gossip…and she said the problem is the men are in all the positions of economic power.”

“Yeah, I mean at a very basic level it’s about respect. So some organizations have tried to frame it as, is this respectful treatment of someone, is this something that puts them in a positive light and makes them feel empowered and included in the workplace? Probably sticking your hand in the back of someone’s dress and giving her a massage and calling her a cow isn’t going to make her feel like that – so turning it into a much broader issue of professional conduct can also help. But it’s true, if it’s someone who’s in a position of power, and economic power, they run HR, they can hire and fire those people too…so these equity offices are usually toothless if the people in power are the harassers or back them.”

A complete lack of desire to act when the perpetrator is the boss seems to be pretty common in these situations. Thank you to those of you who contributed to a Facebook discussion about this topic or told your story in the comments section on the website.

We will be back in a minute.

This episode of The Broad Experience is supported by Write, Speak, Code – Write Speak Code is all about empowering women in a male-dominated industry – technology. It’s all about getting women to become speakers, thought leaders, and open source contributors. The Write Speak Code conference is taking place in June in Chicago. You can sign up for all upcoming news bout the conference at writespeakcode.com.

And if your company would like to sponsor the event the organizers would love to hear from you – all the information is at writespeakcode.com. 

Next I brought up with Jennifer the topic of younger men and their attitudes to women. Which you heard me mention at the end of the last show.

AM-T: “I used to assume that millennial men were enlightened, sorted, no problems there. And then I started to read all these articles about all these incidents in tech startups that are largely run by millennial men and I thought hmm, I don’t think my theory was entirely correct…”

“Well that’s where our understanding of this phenomenon needs to kick in – it’s not about generational awareness and general attitudes it’s about what’s in it for me, what’s my status in the workplace, what’s my identity, how do I define myself, who do I consider to be my competition?

And so millennial men are probably just as much as their forefathers defining a huge part of themselves and their pride and their own personal identity on being better than women. We socialize boys to do that. So if women come in and they can do the job just as well as a man a) that presents a lot of competition, it doubles the playing field, and b) it threatens the social identity of those men in that job to the extent that ‘this is a bro culture’ and they want to keep it that way.”

AM-T: “Talking of culture, academia seems to be a prime place for sexual harassment to flourish and often in the sciences in particular. What’s going on there?”

“Well I think there’s a lot of things going on. There’s a history of professors having relationships with their students. Back in the 60s and 70s I guess maybe that was considered somewhat normal or seen as consensual even though there was a huge power difference between professor and advisee. So there’s that history, but also the vast power difference, the male dominated context of science, the lab space personal opportunities for this kind of harassing treatment. But power in academia is pretty absolute in some senses. So if you have male superstar science professor, he can completely make or break a career in a way that I think is even hard in the corporate world. You can prevent this person making it in science, and at the same time, you can’t be fired – you can fire most people in most companies but tenured professors are often hard to get rid of, so there’s this sense of complete impunity.”

In two recent cases I’ve read about in the sciences, one at the University of Chicago, one at Yale, the male professors ended up stepping down [NB: the professor in this case was finally pushed out]. This was after investigations had been launched and after the media started taking an interest.  But at Yale in particular the whole thing was incredibly drawn-out.

AM-T: “Do you think that academia is any worse at handling these cases than other work environments? They seem to have got themselves in a number of stews about how they handle this stuff.”

“I mean there are definitely work environments that are really bad outside of academia and others that are much better…but there is this, well, ‘we’re so enlightened, we’re progressive, so this couldn’t happen here’ or ‘people can take care of themselves’ – a little bit of that attitude. And then I think, especially the increasing stardom that goes on in academia, it’s a star system now, so you might have men who are running labs, cranking out huge grants and publications and they bring a lot status and recognition to the school. So there’s little desire to do anything if these men are misbehaving, because of the prestige they bring to the department, and because of all that power they have there’s very few people speaking out when these men are behaving badly.”

That jibes with a piece I read recently in the the magazine Nature. It was an op-ed by a female scientist who’d been harassed by a professor 30 years her senior – he was supervising her post-doctoral work. The university he worked for had ultimately found him to be at fault. But it didn’t fire him, and it asked her to keep the whole thing hush-hush.

“Yeah, they’re protecting their own. Cases that I’ve seen have involved, ‘We talked to him, he’s not gonna do that any more.’ There’s no follow through or consequence at all. In the meantime women’s careers have been ruined.”

She says there’s an ongoing problem with post-doctoral students like the one I just mentioned who come from abroad…

“They come to do a post-doc with this amazing star. And they’re even more at the mercy because they’re out of their home country, they don’t have family or friends, they don’t understand the legal system. So there’s this one egregious case in my own field involving post-docs that were actually required by the male professor to wear lingerie and have sex with him in hotel rooms, or else he was going to ruin their careers and cut off their funding and all this kind of stuff. And I’ve heard from equity offices on the campuses I’ve been involved with of similar cases of graduate students and post-docs being very vulnerable, especially from other countries.”

AM-T: “Charming! Lovely stuff. It’s so depressing.”

“It is, and there’s also this don’t ever out anybody norm, don’t ever say who it is. And I think people are starting to get over that. Because once one victim says something usually there’s that whole iceberg below, all those other people who have experienced the same thing who come forward.”

There is one encouraging thing though – this whole ‘he for she’ movement. Jennifer says more and more men in her classes are bothered by things only women used to talk about…

“I’ve noticed in my 17 years of teaching business students a real sea change, and this is a hopeful thing about the next generation, in some of the men, because they are married to or partnered with women who have high powered careers more and more now. We have a plurality of households now with female breadwinners. So the economic shift that’s going on with educational degrees and careers means men are dependent on and intimate with women with very high powered careers, and they’re now personally seeing the repercussions of this kind of behavior in the workplace. And they’re bringing them into my classroom and the men are just as concerned as the women at this point.”

And she says what’s really instructive is when both halves of the couple work at the same place…

“For example my husband and I both started out at the University of Toronto as assistant professors and we witnessed eachother’s 11 year careers there before moving to the University of British Columbia and how completely different the treatment and experience and time of promotion and all that kind of stuff was, so when you have that direct comparison in the same company or organization, it really opens your eyes.”

AM-T: “I take it he was moving ahead faster that you were?”

“Oh yeah, way faster.”

Jennifer Berdahl. One other thing we talked about is a documentary we both enjoyed – it’s called The Mask You Live in. and it’s about  the pressure boys are still under to define themselves as hyper masculine – and sort of in opposition to women. It’s a good film and it makes you realize just how much all that has to do with what women face – everything from domestic violence to discrimination at work. It looks like it’s not streamable yet but I’ll post a link on The Broad Experience site so you can find out more. I’ll also link you to a few articles that are related to today’s show.

As usual if you have thoughts on this episode, let me know either in the comments section on the site or on the show’s Facebook page.

And if you’d like to support this one-woman show, head to the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com. If you can afford to donate 50 bucks to the podcast you will receive the official Broad Experience T-shirt – ladies cut.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.