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  • Bobbi K Dominick

When Sexual Harassment Isn't Sexual


Some studies have asked women to indicate whether they have been subjected to sexual harassment.  the studies found that about 25% of the women indicated "Yes."  But an interesting thing happens when you ask the same question not by using the words "sexual harassment," but instead defining specific behaviors.  This includes things we might define as "gender demeaning" or "gender derogatory" behavior.  When women were asked if they had ever experienced those types of behaviors in the workplace, the number responding "Yes" shot up to 60%.  So what does this mean?

It means that sometimes organizations looking for sexual harassment may miss the types of behaviors they should be looking for.  When a policy defines sexual harassment as "sexualized behavior" including propositions, lewd gestures, etc., many in the workplace might not think it includes gender demeaning behavior. Gender demeaning behavior is included in the "legal" definition or harassment,  and just as harmful to victims. 

A prohibition on sexual harassment in the workplace must include behaviors that indicate bias.  Comments or jokes that imply women are the weaker sex, more emotional, or flighty should be included.  Take these examples:

  • Jokes about women being bad at math or science

  • "Blond" jokes

  • Comments that a woman's true calling is caring for house or children

  • Comments that a woman's highest and best use in the workplace is making coffee, baking goodies, and taking notes

These types of comments all rely on stereotypes of women that should be included in the definition of gender harassment. 

Gender derogatory labels applied to women should also be included.  Look at this list:

  • "darling" 

  • "sweetheart" 

  • "baby" 

  • "honey" 

These nicknames denote a particular bias, and continual behavior like this should be included in prohibited behavior. 

How about using offensive comments implying women are less than men?  This behavior should be prohibited.  This might include comments like:

  • Telling a woman to "man up" 

  • Telling a woman to "grow a pair"

  • Telling a woman she is too emotional, flighty, or even the more recent example where an attorney implied that women are more inclined to lie because they are the weaker sex 

By forgetting to include gender demeaning or implicitly biased behavior in the definition of sexual harassment, leaders miss an opportunity to assure that the team understands expectations for their behavior.  They also miss an opportunity to eliminate the kind of demeaning behavior that can lead to even more serious incidents of gender bias. 

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