Workplace Harassment Is About More Than Sexual Advances


Can you be “gender harassed” — i.e., subject to discrimination — in the workplace without being subject to unwanted sexual advances? It seems obvious, but it’s more complex than it sounds.

A new study out of the University of Michigan defines “gender harassment” as “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey insulting, hostile and degrading attitudes to women.” The study found that such relatively indirect types of workplace behavior had “negative personal and professional outcomes,” and the authors argue that “there is a case for interpreting existing legislation as including gender harassment, so that it is recognized as a legitimate and serious form of sex-based discrimination in the workplace.”

The samples were women in the military and working in federal legal practice. According to the summary of the study, “In the military, victims scored significantly lower on all work attitudes and reported greater performance decline due to both physical and emotional health. They also described less overall psychological well-being and health satisfaction and had more thoughts and intentions of leaving their jobs. Among attorneys, gender-harassed women reported lower satisfaction with professional relationships and higher job stress.”

The comparison sample was “non-victims,” which seems rather tough to define. As does “gender harassment,” in general, which, extended to a variety of behaviors, becomes equated with the fact that we live in a sexist society. Still, it’s useful to think about how a hostile work environment means more than just your superior making your promotion contingent on sleeping with him.

Describing or critiquing anything more subtle often gets chalked up to feminist hysteria or sour grapes (ahem).

But that’s just not the whole story. As Sady Doyle pointed out on The Atlantic (nice to see a break from their usual fare, by the way!), Mad Men bombards us with how bad it was Back Then in very obvious ways (including blatant sexual advances in the workplace) while allowing some viewers to gloss over the aspects that are still with us, in the workplace and beyond:

Our inability to identify misogyny, even on a show that presents it so melodramatically, points to the truth behind sexism, and oppression at large. To people who actually lived through the 1960s, the sexism of their culture didn’t seem dramatic; the men who objectified and infantilized women probably bore no specific malice, and the vast majority of the women who found their lives constrained by those men didn’t imagine that things could be different. Their oppression was invisible, because it was normal. In other words, they were like us. Sexism is still around, and in the vast majority of instances it doesn’t present itself as some portentous, shocking occurrence. It’s just the fabric of daily life, a little ugliness that we take for granted.

Calling out that ugliness, piece by piece, and separating it from what we consider standard operating behavior is the first step.

Mad Men‘s Very Modern Sexism Problem [The Atlantic]
Redefining Sexual Discrimination [Summary]

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