Recognizing Sexual Harassment

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During the last six months of the country’s news cycle, two of the hottest topics under discussion were sexual harassment and sexual assault. Controversial terms such as locker room talk emerged along with allegations of groping by celebrities, and a spate of high-profile women who described the long-standing harassment they had endured at work captured the attention of many women.

Why should this concern you, especially if you’ve never experienced sexual harassment or assault? Because, according to most experts, if you think you haven’t been a victim of sexism, you are probably wrong. This is a scary thought indeed.
Gender bias and sexual harassment are often subtle and hard to catch. Sexist jokes, inappropriate physical contact and intimidating threats are more common than women think.

The American Association of University Women defines workplace sexual harassment as any “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of sexual nature.”

Oftentimes, women shrug off behavior that is indeed sexual misconduct. It can be as inappropriate as grabbing or groping, or as slight as an off-hand Facebook post. In either case, it is still demeaning and a form of discrimination, as well as a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Nationwide, 25 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment on the job, according to a poll a few years ago by Langer Research Associates. A study by Cosmopolitan found that one in three women between the ages of 18 and 34 has been sexually harassed at work.

To make matters worse, victims of unwelcome workplace conduct rarely report it. A June 2016 study about various types of workplace harassment for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission revealed that “roughly three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager or union representative about the harassing conduct.”

It makes you wonder just how many women find themselves blocked from advancing their careers by those who try to take advantage of them sexually. Most often, lower level working women fear losing their jobs if they report sexual harassment. Higher level working women have the most stories to share of sexual harassment as they have climbed the career ladder. Now that they have reached the top, they are more likely to relate their experiences, which could help women who are suffering silently.

The Langer poll found that women who displayed assertive, dominant and independent personalities in male-dominated organizations were the primary victims of sexual harassment. So it falls to reason that sexual harassment will begin to diminish when more women move into dominant positions in business. A 2016 study by McKinsey & Co. and reported that 17 percent more women are in the corporate suite (C-Suite), up 2 percent over 2015.

When women advance into higher positions, it translates to less sexual harassment, partly because lower level working women will feel more comfortable reporting the abuse. The option of approaching a senior female executive offers victims a higher level of assurance that something will be done about their situation. What should you do if you are faced with sexual harassment? Likely, your first inclination is to report it to your Human Resources Department. While most HR personnel are excellent professionals, you may find that their first duty is to the company, not you. And it may not be as confidential as you’d like, resulting in other personnel hearing about it.

Before you ever meet with HR, get hard evidence, perhaps a recording if it is legal in your area. If the behavior is over the top, i.e., pornography or physical touching, you should assemble strong evidence, such as witnesses and printed material. Begin a contemporaneous diary recording the details of the offenses.

Experts agree it may be best to hire a lawyer who specializes in this field, due to the complex legality of these cases. Once you’ve reported it to your company, you are required by law to file your case with the EEOC, which must have a minimum of 180 days to complete their investigation. You may get a letter called a “right to sue,” informing you to file suit in federal court within 90 days. Be aware that your company will not sit by idly during this process, and it’s likely to rake your life over the coals. In addition, it becomes public record for any future employment possibility.

Combating harassment should be a priority for the workplace. Despite overall increases in occupational advancement for women, this is an ongoing problem that will only disappear with 100 percent commitment from the top executives in every company and organization.

It’s not likely that those who are not the victims of sexual harassment are as keenly aware of the prevalence of sexual harassment. Perhaps recent events will serve as a catalyst for all of us to put a stop to it, once and for all. As Carly Fiorina said, “We can only be diminished if we choose to allow it.” ■

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