October 12, 2017
As the sexual scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein grows, there is one thing we know for sure – this type of scandal is not relegated to Hollywood alone. Before Weinstein’s abuse became overtly public, there was Travis Kalanick at Uber, Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, and even accusations against then candidate, now president, Donald Trump.
As a woman, I would like to think we were making progress, and in some cases we are, but according to a YouGov poll that survey 4,900 people, 25% of respondents reported witnessing sexual harassment at work, and 30% of respondents (80% of whom were women), reported experiencing sexual harassment. And it gets worse, “60 percent of women in tech report receiving unwanted sexual advances,” according to a February 2017 TechCrunch article, it is difficult to argue progress is being made.
We could spend hours talking about how our culture has allowed this abusive behavior to remain so pervasive, but instead, I want to focus on what men and women can do.
To the women, if you are being sexually harassed at work, there isn’t an easy answer. In a perfect world, you would report it, HR would reprimand the abuser, and the abuse would stop or the abusive employee would be removed from his position, but that is not what typically happens. Often women are afraid to speak out for fear of retribution. We can hope that this newest example may make is a little easier for women to speak out – time will tell. I think it is important to state, each woman’s circumstances are different, and therefore, her response will also be different. We cannot chastise women who opt to remain silent, and we must support women who opt to speak out. Both responses require courage.
f you are sexually harassed, I recommend you seek a confidant, someone you can trust. You may also need to seek counseling. There are also non-work resources available to you such as the AAUW: American Association of University Women, Workplace Fairness, Feminist Majority Foundation, and the National Women’s Law Center – all of which can provide you with excellent resources.
If you make the decision to go public, understand there may be unintended consequences. Depending on your institution, you may not be able to start a conversation on an informal basis (not filing a formal complaint). When moving forward, do so knowing you have every right to expect to work in an environment where you are not harassed, your decision to file a complaint is valid, and you should not let anyone make you feel as if proceeding ahead is wrong, or unfair to the abusive individual.
If you are a woman and a female colleague approaches you, in confidence, and describes an experience with sexual harassment, support her. Don’t tell her what to do. Don’t tell her to forget about it. Don’t tell her, men will be men. Support her in whichever path she chooses to take. And don’t support her because it might be you next, support her because sexual harassment is wrong and unacceptable.
To the men, you need to step up and help create an environment where sexual harassment is not tolerated. What does this mean? Don’t stand around the water cooler cracking jokes about women’s bodies because this fosters an abusive environment. Model respect for your female colleagues and demand the same from your male peers (above you and below you). Hold other men accountable when their actions slip into dangerous territory. If a female employee (peer or subordinate) approaches you detailing sexual harassment she is experiencing, listen and support her. Don’t tell her what to do. Don’t tell her to forget about it. Don’t tell her, men will be men, and nothing was meant by it. Note: the same applies if a fellow male colleague comes to you reporting sexual harassment. While women are the primary targets, men do also experience sexual harassment.
Additionally, please do not let fear alter your day-today business activities women, such as avoiding meeting with women one-on-one. This only perpetuates the divide, it contributes to the main reason women are often silent when harassment does occur, and it keeps women from advancing in their careers. According to a New York Times article, "At every level, more men than women say they interact with senior leaders at least once a week, according to research by McKinsey and the nonprofit Lean In. This imbalance is a major reason women stall at lower levels of companies..."
Sexual harassment is not your typical cocktail party conversation topic, but I encourage you to talk about it. The more we talk about it, the more awareness we raise, and the easier it becomes for victims of sexual harassment (women and men) to speak up. Talking about it is the path to stopping it.
Anne Converse Willkomm
Director of Graduate Studies