A renewed national conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace has exposed a chasm of understanding about what constitutes inappropriate behavior and the often insurmountable hurdles that encourage silence about such behavior. Throughout the past year, stories about how unwanted sexual advances have upended lives have captivated the nation and sparked calls for resetting cultural norms that define acceptable workplace behavior – ones that seek to establish gender equality and refuse to tolerate bad behavior and embolden bullies. A recent survey of business people and those in the legal industry demonstrate just how divided women and men are when it comes to the intricate issues surrounding the matter.

Limited consensus

Researchers polled women and men about their perceptions of sexual harassment and how it is addressed in the workplace. The survey conducted jointly by the Working Mother Institute and the American Bar Association found a consensus on the underlying issues that can foster an environment where sexual harassment can thrive. Overwhelmingly, women (88 percent) and men (77 percent) identified sexual harassment as a power issue, followed closely by the belief that organizational culture may permit bad behavior to continue (84 percent of women and 82 percent of men).

However, a deeper look at the issues confirmed a stark contrast in perceptions based on gender.

Stark contrasts

While more women (68 percent) compared to men (19 percent) reported they experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, fewer women (27 percent) believed their claim was taken seriously compared to men (42 percent). Women polled were more likely than men to believe that men hold a disproportionate amount of power in the organization and they did not believe their organization’s reporting process or standards for appropriate behavior are clearly defined or communicated. Men are more likely to see themselves as allies in reaching gender equality and believe that employees are held accountable for upholding policies prohibiting sexual harassment. Yet, male respondents were far less likely (29 percent) to support enforcing penalties on transgressors than women (46 percent).

Perpetuating Silence

Female participants, who reported a higher level of sexual harassment experiences, were asked about their reasons for remaining silent. Their top reasons are in line with their responses to other questions. The fear that reporting would negatively impact their job; the idea that the organization tolerates the behavior; and no faith that those in charge would address the behavior rose to the top of the lists.

Common ground for change

Agreement on solutions can provide a starting point for productive conversations about addressing the need for change. Women and men agreed that leadership commitment and role modeling, along with ensuring a culture of inclusion and respect are critical to resetting our society’s outlook on sexual harassment. While the survey’s sampling is not completely representative of the general population, the findings can help inform employers that are committed to improving their workplace culture.

To be clear, sexual harassment is not only wrong, but it can also be unlawful. Sexual harassment includes unwanted sexual advances, repeated remarks or physical behavior of a sexual nature and requests for sexual favors. According to the Civil Rights Act, such behavior is considered discriminatory if it affects an individual’s employment status or unreasonably interferes with how they do their job. Employers with 15 or more employees are subject to the Act and can be held liable for permitting such bad behavior.

Working Mother Institute
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