Tuesday, October 31, 2017

How To Fix The Problem of Sexual Harassment at Work

This post is about how to fix the workplace sexual harassment problem reflected in the alleged behaviors of Messrs. Weinstein, Toback, Wiesenteil and Halperin, among others.  It's based on my recent readings and thoughts.

Here are the proposals I have come across:

-  Many have suggested that other men should clearly express their disapproval of sexual harassment (in, say, locker-rooms),

-  that the overall corporate culture in many firms (and perhaps all firms) must change,

-  and that the harassers who are caught should bear some responsibility for their acts (1).

All those are good ideas.  Changes in the culture are required for them to work, however.  The current avalanche of harassment cases in the media may help with that, though I remain skeptical.

Some other proposals are more controversial (2).

-  One is to argue that if only women won't dress in a sexually explicit way, if only women remain firmly professional, then harassment will go away.

-  One commentator even stated that a sexily dressed woman in a work setting (3) is sexual harassment of the heterosexual men present, because — he believes — men have great trouble fighting their harassment instincts.

Those proposals remind me of the idea in extremist fundamentalist Islam that "good women" should be totally covered.  That way men know which women to harass, I guess!

The belief in the power of the objects of harassment to prevent it is mostly mistaken, if dressing very modestly and never meeting alone with a man is supposed to make a woman safe.

At best it causes some other woman to be picked as the harassment object instead, and at worst it will not work (4), leaving the target more confused and guilt-ridden,  questioning what else she might have done wrong to end up harassed anyway.

-  A variant of that approach is to recommend that men in positions of power never see a female subordinate or a female student or a female customer alone.  That advice, based on the life rules of one Mike Pence, sounds a lot more like catering to the fear of powerful men that they might be falsely accused

It also places the costs of preventing sexual harassment firmly on the shoulders of the victims, because, as noted, one-on-one meetings are often necessary, and the Pence rule would still allow men to have them with other men, thus giving them a leg up on the promotion and pay ladders.

-  To avert that possibility, it has been proposed that no person in a position of power should meet any of his or her underlings in one-on-one settings (5).  This is impractical, and if it weren't, it would probably quickly turn into the previous Pence version.

As I noted above, I believe that a change in culture is necessary for any improvements in how to deal with sexual harassment at work (or elsewhere).

But the cases which are currently in the news may not be the most typical ones, because each and every one of the men accused of harassment would neatly fit under the classification of "serial harassers."

I cannot tell if this is because the media are less likely to go public about someone who has been accused by only one or two women, or if it really is because there's some number (large or small) of serial harassers out there who view the women they work with as an all-you-can-eat-smorgasbord.

If the latter is the case,  cultural changes might not be enough.


(1)  Not necessarily fines (as some countries now use for street harassment), but something which distributes the negative consequences of harassment a little bit more fairly.

(2) They are more controversial, because they propose solutions where all the costs are to be borne by those who might get harassed and not by those who might do the harassing.  Thus, we are explicitly told that either female modesty or the segregation of the sexes would fix the problem.  Does that sound familiar to you from various fundamentalist screeds?  Note that all agency concerning prevention is here assigned to the targets of the harassment and no agency is assigned to the harassers. — This, as an aside, is a fun read about the question what women are responsible for.

You might find some of the views from Russia's movie industry interesting in this context.  The flavor of victim blaming is stronger, perhaps simply more openly expressed by some.  Though I recently read this American tweet, too:

I've never been raped.Know why?Because I don't dress like a prostitute or act overly sexual like most young women.Take some responsibility!

(3)  I am a proponent of appropriate clothing for work (and for funerals, weddings and so on).   But if someone comes to work improperly dressed, surely the answer is not to sexually molest that person?  Once again, this assumes no agency by the potential harassers.

Besides, some firms (FoxNewsCough) appear to have female dress codes which are hard to distinguish from dressing sexy in general, and that makes following the recommendations impossible for the women who work in them.

(4) The most famous example of that, in the context of street harassment, is this one from Cairo's Tahrir square in 2011:

...As we saw in December 2011, the Egyptian Army stripped and beat a woman wearing a niqab in the middle of the square, and all people could talk about was what was she doing there [and] why was she wearing a blue bra.”
A woman wearing a niqab would have had only her eyes showing before she was stripped to her underwear.

(5)  I failed to record the source for this proposal.  Mea culpa.