At what level does sexual harassment begin, and – How far does it go?
A second opinion piece by Intercultural Mediator, Susanne Schuler
(Reminder: Part 1 was about Where did it come from? – Hierarchical power and vulnerability plus the Gender neutrality-equality v Beauty primium dilemma and the impact of bias.)
There are several versions of the sexual harassment escalation scale. This is perhaps an indictment of the enormity of the abuse that is occurring. Let us look at an aggregated ladder of possible encounters;
*Looking – intensely or leering
*Language – sexualized conversations in the workplace, one-to-one or male group vulgarity around or toward lone females
*Suggestion – crossing the flirting line with explicit requests, described activities or observations and judgments
*Physical moves – contact & proximity, escalating to physical intimidation and cornering
*Trade / exchange – in-work offers of favourable treatment in return for forms of sexual compliance or issuing a threat of negative consequences if compliance is not forthcoming
*Forced choice – aggravated demands for sexual engagement
*Forced sexual moves – forced physical violation
*Violence – the use of extreme non-consensual physical force upon women
It is a depressing list.
Q. Why can’t we all just get on with our work in the office?
A. The same social and educational forces that have shaped women’s roles and behaviours, make us vulnerable to exploitation. These forces have also conditioned a part of the male working population to believe that successfully taking advantage of a female work colleague is, somehow, a badge of honour, a rite of passage or, simply, a perk of the job.
E.g. The complex reality on the ground – an example – A job panel may unconsciously or consciously discriminate against a working mother’s application when hiring for the role of a travelling sales person. The panel members project their own feelings and prejudice onto the selection process accordingly.
Their fixed image of a good mother may include not being sexually available, staying at home with her children and not being exposed to the negative encounters that accompany holding down a job travelling around the UK.
What has just happened?
Arising from a collective male knowledge of the threat of harassment, they pre-emptively exclude her from consideration, knowing the harassment that comes with a woman eating alone in restaurants, staying at service station hotels and meeting customers in their offices as well as socialising with them as part of relationship building.
They are projecting dangers arising from their own fear, shared knowledge and experience. With the best of intentions (the most dangerous phrase in the English language), they are reluctant to expose a female worker, wishing to undertake a travelling role, to the abuse and harassment that they know / fear she will inevitably encounter.
We can see in this real scenario, the two sides of the gender dilemma coming into play – First gender neutrality, the female candidate may be the best applicant for the role, and, if put through the gender blind process we saw with the US orchestra, she would indeed get the job based on merit. In this version, if she has applied for the role, her life choices would not be questioned and her treatment would be even-handed regarding gender.
Secondly, the female attributes as currency perspective becomes awkward, twice. Firstly, does her beauty play a part in driving up her commercial selling potential, making her a more successful closer and so a strong candidate for this targets-based role?
Sticking with this path, will her attributes expose her to better working conditions – special treatment, lower barriers etc. or, worse ones in the professional space? And, in the public arena? The panel anticipate pestering in public places, customer assumptions about her values and mores etc., leading to an increased chance of sexual harassment occurring in the execution of her job and the pursuit of her career? The feminine attribute of motherhood is considered in a vacuum, and, the fact that her partner may be an excellent stay-at-home carer is not factored in. The net total of all these concerns count against her as the panel consider her application.
As we can see – life is complicated. We have bias, diversity and inclusion guidelines, pragmatism and a skewed view, both positive and negative, as we stack up all the elements of bias coming into play.
E.g. The abuse of power – Let us consider a second example. The Harvey Weinstein story combines the feminine attributes as currency model with an extreme power dynamic to produce perfect storm conditions, all leading to a repeated pattern of abuse. The scenarios, outlined by vast swathes of women, have a number of common elements. We hear the repeated theme of motivated young women being lured into the wrong place, with the wrong man at the wrong time, at the beginning of their careers. They had little or nothing by way of clout, a supportive network around them or equity to fall back on. Now, add in wild promises designed to resonate with the driven ambitions of these young actors – just one last hurdle to jump lies between the impoverished ingénue and an irresistible film role and the opportunity for fame, fortune and success. Thus, the scene is set for a two-stage trading decision to be made. The first comes with the casting-couch – trading sexual compliance for career advantage, inclusion and a chance to make substantial progress as an actor. And, depending on the outcome of the first trade, a second horrific escalated choice, sexual compliance for survival and the chance to leave that hotel room… at all.
This complex topic is trending at the moment. What will come out of this heightened level of awareness and attention both for men, for whom it was a deeply buried dirty secret, and, for women who have the chance to share their stories, stake their claim and design a better workplace for everybody?
End of Part 2.
Next Time – Part 3 – What is being done? And, What can be done?
Part 1: Where did it come from?
Part 3: What is being done? and What can be done?
About the author, Susanne Schuler is an Intercultural Mediator working at the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution in London. She has written the book Intercultural Mediation At Work, published by Bookboon. To buy the book click on the link;