September 21, 2018
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Much work remains to end workplace harassment

Ted S. Warren | AP
Ted S. Warren | AP
n this Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018 file photo, a marcher carries a sign with the popular Twitter hashtag #MeToo used by people speaking out against sexual harassment as she takes part in a Women's March in Seattle, on the anniversary of President Donald Trump's inauguration.
By Amy Blackstone, Special to the BDN
Updated:

In recent months, we’ve seen extraordinary public attention focused on workplace sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women.

There is good reason for the attention. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force on sexual harassment reports that “anywhere from 25 percent to 85 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.” In my own collaborative research, we’ve found that about one in three women and one in seven men define their experiences with potentially harassing behaviors such as unwanted touching and offensive sexual joking as sexual harassment.

While the momentum propelled by the #MeToo movement is cause to hope that this attention will result in change, we’ve seen moments like this before. In 1991, at the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill testified about the ongoing harassment she endured from Thomas at the Department of Education and EEOC. In the late 1990s, it was the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal that brought sexual harassment back to the forefront.

Each of these moments resulted in increased attention to workplace sexual harassment. And yet women continued to be sexually harassed at work.

The question remains whether today’s moment will result in sustained change. Efforts such as TIME’S UP and the continuing presence of #MeToo in the media signal that this time it could be different. But there’s more we can do to ensure that change is lasting.

Employers can hire more women. Research shows that harassment is more common in male-dominated work environments. Rates are lower when there’s gender parity in the workplace.

Employers can also promote more women. Today, women supervisors are especially vulnerable to becoming targets of harassment. In recent research, we found that women supervisors were 138 percent more likely to experience a harassing behavior at work. Having more women at the top could change this dynamic.

One woman manager I interviewed, Holly, described being repeatedly groped by a client at a company dinner. As the only woman in upper management at the manufacturing firm where she worked, Holly was also the only woman invited to the event where she was harassed. “I was the only girl there,” Holly told me. “There were no other girls…Directly below our owner, there’s not been a woman in any of those positions in eons.”

Employers can train employees not just how to avoid harassing others but also how to intervene when they see it happening. Taking a cue from experts in school bullying, we should consider how bystander training may help by encouraging a culture where employees are empowered to promote positive workplace interactions by speaking up when harassment occurs.

We can embrace broader and more inclusive forms of masculinity. Sexual harassment is not only a tool used to control and dominate women, it also serves to limit men’s roles. Men who don’t themselves conform to heterosexist ideals may face sanctions in the form of harassment from other men. In my own collaborative research, we’ve found that men who espouse egalitarian gender beliefs are more likely to report experiencing workplace sexual harassment than are other men.

The costs of harassment touch everyone. Targets report increased anxiety, depression, sleep problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, and financial stress. Bystanders who speak up on behalf of colleagues face ostracism and career stagnation. Employers face reduced employee job satisfaction and organizational commitment, increased absenteeism and work withdrawal, and deteriorating relationships among coworkers.

Today’s #MeToo movement could become the moment we finally make the workplace a place where all workers can thrive. Employees and employers alike will be better off for it.

Amy Blackstone is a professor in sociology and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine in Orono. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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