How to Recognize Sexual Harassment in the Workplace If You See It

Since the New York Times published the story of Harvey Weinstein’s many, many years of predatory sexual behavior, the floodgates have opened. Men from entertainment to journalism to politics have been accused of sexual harassment and assault, turning the dissimilar and disgusting (Weinstein) into respected and even loved ones (George W. Bush; Elie Wiesel).

This isn’t particularly shocking to at least half of us – I don’t know of a single woman who hasn’t been sexually assaulted or harassed at some point in her life. Surprisingly, these people appear to be prosecuted for the time being, TV shows are not renewed, new magazines are closed, Movie premieres canceled. (I mean, let’s see how long this lasts – I expect at least some of these guys to rehabilitate themselves in the next few years, or at least turn to Dancing With the Stars .)

In all of these stories about women exhibiting vile masculine behavior, the ones that resonate most with me are about women who have not achieved triumph, have not become major Hollywood actresses or journalism stars, having achieved success despite bad behavior. their bosses and colleagues. In the face of workplaces where they were persecuted and the perpetrators not punished, some women held on and gritted their teeth; others have found other jobs; still others, demoralized, left their fields completely. One woman who was being stalked by Michael Oresquez, a former editorial director of NPR, told Vox that the worst outcome of the entire trial was “that it completely ruined my ambition.”

Sexual Harassment or Boys’ Club?

When I was in my 20s, I decided to become a permanent freelancer. I have always argued that this was due to a somewhat misanthropic nature and dislike of office life, but to be honest, it was also because I simply did not want to submit to the power dynamics of corporate culture – power dynamics that often involved young women and older men. in leadership positions. When I first started out, the media was dominated by men, and men did not hide their idle talk, giggling at each other about the appearance and sexual availability of their female colleagues. Even in a workplace where no one is pulling out their dick, it is sometimes difficult to define what sexual harassment is (one that should be prosecuted or harassed, at least in theory) and what is “simple” is a subtle gender exclusion known as boys club.

Since then, I’ve made a decent career for myself – it’s no coincidence that most of my acquaintances now are women – but sometimes I really wonder what my life would look like if I could better navigate the men in my field. Many of us women just … leaned out or walked away. Rebecca Traister tells the story of a woman who is so demoralized by men in publishing that she completely changed her career to renovating houses in rural Pennsylvania.

I laughed at all the gender incidents that happened in my early working life: ass grabbing, dirty jokes, not entirely inaudible comments about women and their abilities. But joking is itself a form of gaslighting: you pretend to others that it doesn’t really matter, you tell yourself it doesn’t really matter, and 20 years later, you’re renovating rural Pennsylvania homes and have almost forgotten about yourself. there were other dreams.

It is a kind of swamp ( sexual harassment? Is it gender discrimination? Or am I just at odds with my colleagues? ) That can cause the harassed person to question themselves and their abilities. And so I ask: How can we know for sure about sexual harassment when we see it? In every inappropriate or threatening interaction I have with men, there has been a moment where I asked myself, “Did this really happen?” How can we know if this is just a bad joke or a genuinely incorrect text, and what is targeted gender discrimination?


Eric Bachmann, an employment attorney at Zuckerman Law who deals with sexual harassment and glass ceiling discrimination cases, wrote in an email: “Much of the recent sexual harassment reports have focused on egregious behavior (such as sexual assault and groping) from dignitaries. profile figures. However, a much more common type of harassment is associated with less obvious workplace behaviors across the country that are not gaining widespread attention from Hollywood. And this more sophisticated form of discrimination can also be illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 and other laws. ”

However, he emphasizes that the law does not guarantee compliance with the norms of official courtesy and that the courts will apply the “reasonable person” standard when considering cases: “Can a reasonable person on the employee’s site consider his behavior offensive? ? If so, the employee is likely to be able to prove that the harassment was unlawful. The reality is that different courts evaluate claims about hostile work environments differently, and there is no exact math test to determine when a harassment goes from being unpleasant to illegal. “

So what is this “less obvious” yet powerful behavior? Well, first of all, it doesn’t have to be specifically about sex – it can be general comments about a person’s gender, for example, “women can’t do this kind of work.” It also doesn’t have to be directed at the person who is complaining: if a coworker makes vulgar jokes about women, even if they are not addressed to you, that’s a problem.

Kathleen Peratis , an employment lawyer and partner at Outten and Golden in New York, says, “From a legal point of view, hostility has to be either serious or widespread .” A serious situation is typical of Weinstein / Louis K.K., or the classic boss race at the table, or explicit quid pro quo . But the more subtle signs of a hostile environment – a “drop-drop”, – she says sexist jokes, giggling, a colleague, “accidentally” lets you watch porn on his computer. “It’s all over the place,” she says. “Sometimes it’s not sexy at all, unless you put it in context,” says Peratis. “Even though this particular comment isn’t about sex,” as a colleague who takes too much excitement about your dating life, you can see that he creates conditions that interfere with your ability to do your job: a hostile work environment.

This does not necessarily mean that it is easy to prove it. According to Bachman, “the basic pattern that an employee must prove to show that he is working in a ‘hostile work environment’ is:

  • She was subjected to unwanted harassment;
  • The harassment was sex-based;
  • The persecution unreasonably interfered with her work; and
  • The employer knew or should have known about the persecution but did not take corrective action. ”

Ellen Pao, who was a junior partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, filed a discrimination lawsuit that went to court in 2015. Pao argued that Kleiner Perkins “ [created] an atmosphere of insidious and outspoken sexism that impeded her career. Her suit alleged that a male partner was stalking female employees, and in one case attacked a woman who was wearing only a robe (what’s with these guys and robes?). Pao had a short relationship with him; she claimed that he took revenge on her when it was over. Pao lost the case.

But there are success stories: in 1996, 23 women sued Smith Barney in the infamous boom-boom-room case (male employees’ birthdays were celebrated with strippers in what could only be a downright unsightly basement); the brokerage firm ultimately paid out $ 150 million.

Trust yourself and lobby for change

It’s hard to know if a catalog of subtle incidents – sexist jokes, meeting a guy in his dressing gown – is enough to lead the case, but Bachmann encourages women to trust their instincts: “As we saw from the cascade of women Finally, speaking of the sexual harassment they had to endure, If you are constantly uncomfortable with the way your boss or your coworkers treat you, then you are probably in a toxic work environment. And even if it doesn’t come down to the level of an illegal hostile work environment, an employee shouldn’t just grin and tolerate this behavior. Perhaps there is a reliable leader with whom the employee can discuss their problems and see if this leads to any constructive change. “

If not, then it is obvious that a lawyer can help you decide on your next steps. Both Bachmann and Peratis point out that strength is in numbers: the more women you can convince to come forward, the better your case will be. However, no matter what, the emotional, financial and professional costs associated with filing a claim or even going to HR to file a complaint can be exhausting.

How to see the big picture

Peratis notes that if one tries to analyze this hostile environment incident in isolation, the claims are easy to separate – that’s exactly what the defense will do: They will say, “This particular thing wasn’t all that terrible; this particular thing can be explained, this particular thing didn’t actually happen that way. If you take a little of it, nothing will seem illegal. But if you look at the whole picture, at the environment, you will see that it is really imbued with a sense of vilification or humiliation. This made the working conditions much more difficult for the woman who carried her than for everyone else. ” Here’s what you should ask yourself if you’re not sure – are my working conditions harder than everyone else because of this hostility?

Was Rose McGowan’s working conditions worse than Brad Pitt’s? Certainly. But when things are more subtle, it’s hard to see – is it harder for you to present your ideas in meetings or communicate with colleagues at conferences than the guy at the next table who doesn’t tolerate long shrugs or jokes about blondes? It can be hard to figure out, even for oneself, and it can be tempting to just say “doesn’t fit,” move on and hope to forget about it. But if the current moment has taught us anything, it is something that we do not really forget – not in a few months, not in a year, not in a lifetime. And we must let this knowledge guide us in the present. As Bachmann says, “The more voices heard, the more likely it is that the situation will actually improve.”


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