Step one of breaking the harassment cycle: take women seriously

A #MeToo protestor encourages others to ‘balance ton porc’ – expose their aggressors. EPA/Christophe Petit Tesson

The issue of sexual harassment at work finally seems to be being taken seriously as a topic of discussion. But the difficult part will be to change the culture that fails to take women’s complaints seriously.

Harvey Weinstein’s outing as an alleged serial assailant of young women, including many famous movie stars, has opened the floodgates. Now we find that a British government minister asked his aide to buy sex toys on his behalf and that countless other accusations are swirling around Westminster.

Both are evidence of what many have known for a long time. This is ubiquitous and normalised behaviour in many workplaces. And of course it’s not just the entertainment industry and politics but many other professional and business settings. Some researchers even argue that the sexual harassment of women workers has been a problem for as long as women have worked outside the home..

A recent survey commissioned by the TUC union reported that 52% of all women polled have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. More than one in ten women reported experiencing unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them. As I have argued in my own research, the objectification of women, is still a common practice in organisations including academic institutions.

This problem combines with other power differentials women experience, such as pay gaps and being excluded from top jobs and the opportunity to set rules. Together, it all creates a fertile ground for power abuse. After all, sexual harassment doesn’t happen between people who share power equally. In most cases, it’s senior men and superiors who are central to the organisation who abuse junior staff – and young women in particular. They do it even more if the workers in question are on temporary and zero-hour contracts, according to the TUC report.

Brushing it off

Women who have experienced sexual harassment often find their experiences are minimised by colleagues. Co-workers may also dismiss allegations as rumour, in effect, turning a blind eye to such behaviour. Concerned with protecting their reputations – and those of their powerful representatives – organisations fail to act. Instead they end up paying lip service to professional standards while failing to protect the affected employee, who often has nowhere to turn.

Let’s not forget that Weinstein stands accused of threatening to disrupt his victims’ careers in incidents stretching back 30 years. For Weinstein and other powerful men to carry on for so long, many other influential men and women must have enabled (sometimes unwittingly), their predatory activities.

Weinstein’s alleged inappropriate behaviour spans decades. EPA

But once the lid has been lifted on the systemic abuse of power, many feel able to come forward to share their stories. Working with whistleblowers in different contexts in my various research projects has taught me that silence and waiting it out for the wrongdoing to go away is not the appropriate strategy. That only emboldens the wrongdoers. The same is true for the non-disclosure agreements that organisations often use to end cases. These silence the victims of abuse and enable the abusers to carry on with their exploitative practices. Worse, NDAs can be used as a weapon to silence and intimidate victims.

We must therefore take allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace seriously no matter how powerful the person involved might be and how far-fetched the allegation sounds. Being silent and dismissing what we hear as rumour gives a free pass to the abuser to carry on with their behaviour. It also prevents us from knowing the extent and the true costs of the phenomenon.

The surfacing evidence about widespread sexual harassment in the UK parliament may be only a tip of the iceberg. It will not go away until gender and other institutional and structural power inequalities are addressed.

The mere existence of channels for reporting misconduct in organisations is not sufficient for people to speak up. They will only use these if they trust that their disclosure will be taken seriously and acted upon rather than being dismissed. More importantly, the potential whistleblowers must not fear they will be retaliated against by risking their jobs, facing financial ruin and being stigmatised..

Breaking the link between power and silence is key for changing organisational cultures that sexualise women and often condone sexual harassment.