Sexual Harassment – Where did that come from? An opinion piece by Susanne Schuler Part 1

A Powerful Dilemma

After the sexual harassment incidents coming out of Hollywood, The British BBC, Oxfam and other overseas aid charities, as well as British Parliament, is it time to take a closer look at sexual harassment looking through the lenses of culture and bias?

Sexual Harassment Susanne Schuler

One perspective over the last 40 years has been to see the complexity of gender inclusion in the workplace as a dilemma i.e. Gender neutrality v A currency of feminine traits and attributes.

And, hovering above this dilemma, we can there is an overbearing and constant factor – Hierarchical POWER, acting as a contributing force and colouring the majority of incidents that we are now seeing come to the surface.

Let’s take a look at the component parts of the Gender inclusion dilemma?

Does our history as women of being given lesser roles and, often, having a male boss as the recruiter, decider or allocator of tasks, make a difference, and, what can we expect in the work place?

Dilemma Side One – Gender neutrality – This progressive movement aims to update the workplace from being historically divided, between breadwinning men and factory working / menial working / care working women, to a modern, gender neutral meritocracy.

The new paradigm aims will recognise talent and ability and be blind to gender (and class, privilege, sexual orientation, physical ability, beauty, colour etc. by extension.)

Let us start with a now famous example started with large US orchestras in the 1980’s. Analysis of the top orchestras revealed that less than 5% of the players were female. What was going on?

Was bias present in the auditioning process, preventing women being selected?

In a pragmatic change in the design of the audition space, players were asked to perform behind a screen so judges had to focus purely on their playing before making the hire / pass decision. This alone changed the game and produced a vast improvement in the offering of orchestra positions to female musicians. An interesting extra facet of unconscious bias was uncovered during these trials. The sound of women’s and man’s shoes and their walk as they took up their places to play behind the screen gave something away. Was the sound of their step keeping the recruitment process from becoming optimally meritocratic? With this in mind, some auditions were tweaked with the applicants being asked to remove their shoes before taking up their position to play behind the screen. And so, US orchestras changed their gender balance fundamentally over the following decade.

Bias – Where did it start?

The facts of implicit association have been put beyond doubt by swathes of research proving that more than 70% of us hold a negative association between being female and fulfilling the tasks required for some specific work roles. You may test yourself now – The normal trigger role (reacted to by both male and female subjects) used to illustrate this is…. That of having a female pilot when you are a passenger.

Way back when

2,500 years ago Greek medicine ascribed people’s behaviour and character to the homours in their bodies. A larger quantity of blood, yellow bile, black bile or phlegm would make them sanguine, melancholic, choleric or phlegmatic.

In a similar Greek vein, the uterus or hystera was seen as producing, in women, hysterical symptoms and behaviours – anxiety, irritability or sexually forward behaviour.

Fast-forward 2000+ years. Sigmund Freud moved hysteria out of the uterus. He posited that it was being caused, instead, by emotional trauma and both sexes being prone to this condition (Note; the majority of his subjects were female.)

And now, in the modern workplace – Bias is seen in the design of work, the allocation of roles to gender, and, an the design of a specific economic levels of employment intended for either male and female workers.

I was working with a senior European expat recently who had vast HR responsibilities in Russia. He talked of overseeing 10’s of factories full of women. I challenged him and asked why the majority of jobs were carried out by female staff. His reply was shockingly honest. The factories were set up to use cheap labour meaning that one job and salary could not support a family. THEREFORE only women applied!

Roles haven’t moved that far in the last 100 years – The breadwinner is thought of as the soldier action hero, the protector; a muscular and sensible figure that can be relied upon. Many “fill in” female targeted jobs are designed to top up income and are deliberately built to be lesser in status, excitement and financial reward.

The gender divide in roles has been pretty much constant over the last 150 years with the exception of the First and Second World Wars, when women were asked to fulfil a much more expansive brief in all areas of industry, government and community whilst the men were away at the front.

Power and vulnerability – Capping economic levels, decision making power and designing a workplace where men are in charge has creating deliberate financial dependence for women on their breadwinner husbands and workplace bosses in an ecosystem that, on reflection, seemed ripe and ready for sexual exploitation.

Dilemma Side Two – The currency of feminine attributes and traits – There exists a parallel employment universe and marketplace, where the perceived attributes of women attract a particular and welcome reward. We are not talking about the Florence Nightingale based fallacy that women are the born carers who should sacrifice their personal needs for cash, status and acknowledgement in order to clean, care and serve.

Researchers and academics, Karina Doorley and Eva Sierminska talk of a Beauty Premium providing greater differentiated salaries, at the lower levels of work, for those with specifically ascribed beauty traits (when compared with those where these traits are not present.)

Young Hollywood actresses and corporate interns may occupy this space. Those that are objectively considered beautiful are found to have more than those that aren’t. This applies to career prospects, pay, partnering with wealthier men and encountering less resistance in a number of specific work tasks. Beauty is opening doors in the workplace.

The downside of the beauty premium is some of those doors lead to hotel bedrooms.

With beauty comes greater exposure to being pursued, abused and harassed sexually.

Beyond beauty, we quickly get into controversy – are generalised female behaviours actually a gender issue representing a valid and true difference – Men are from Mars etc., or are they a social construct resulting from 150 years of forced social, sexual and economic gender compliance policed and encouraged by parenting, education, the media and peer group pressure?

POWER – Overriding the dilemma above, is the historically dominant economic position – ownership of assets, enjoyment of access to work opportunities and preferential promotions to management roles of… men. Think corporate boards, Government, public bodies, media and education.

Clubbable men have held the reins for centuries.

Now, for their own specific reasons, they are not currently considering surrendering their privilege for the sake of fairness, equality, or, the pursuit of gender balance. Whatever you hear, they are not going to “budge over a bit” without a fight.

(There are one or two work areas that represent refreshing exceptions when it comes to female v male numbers in work – qualified doctors in medicine, the number of successful female fiction authors and successful high selling female recording artists.)

The world, as a whole though, is dominated by men when measured in terms of assets, cash (income and financial wealth), property, power and peer-to-peer help and access.

Power, abuse and the abuse of power – holding the means to inherited wealth, commercial wealth creation, career progression, and having the law on your side (an antediluvian male throw back), has lead to vast and wide ranging powers for men, specifically over women, and, the abuse of power manifest in the harassment of women in the workplace.

Please like, share and do add your constructive comment. Thanks.

End of Part 1.

In Part 2, next time; What do we see happening? And, What is to be done?

Author Profile – Susanne Schuler is a mediator, trainer and coach with CEDR – The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution – The most successful Mediation Service in the UK. Her book, Intercultural Mediation, is available via bookboon. Click on the link;


Intercultural Mediation at Work – Written by Susanne Schuler – Reviewed by Patrick Schmidt

Applicants need graciousness, benevolence and love  Mediation, as defined by Wikipedia, is a dynamic, structured, interactive process where a neutral third party assists disputing parties in resolving conflict through the use of specialized communication and negotiation techniques. A theoretical, dry … Continue reading