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Why Sexual Harassment Is About More Than Assault

For most women, workplace sexual harassment doesn’t necessarily involve being physically intimidated or sexually assaulted. While this is an unfortunate reality for far too many people — women and men alike — across the United States, there is another type of harassment that is more common, pervasive, and far more difficult to address.

Dubbed “gender harassment” by the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), it includes “behaviors that belittle women and make them feel they don’t belong.” This concept was created after a ground-breaking study conducted by NASEM based on surveys across 36 college campuses.

The idea of gender harassment may seem vague, or confusing. How can something be sexual harassment if it doesn’t involve touch or intimidation? Yet there are hundreds of ways in which women can be harassed at work and in other settings that do not involve outright sexual assault or physical intimidation. Like other forms of abuse, sexual harassment is about power — not sex. The person harassing a colleague derives a feeling of control and superiority by making his targets uncomfortable. Understanding that is critical to understanding gender harassment.

Consider workplaces where a woman walks into a room, and her male colleagues leer at her, or make comments about her looks or her body. Alternatively, her coworkers might stop talking entirely whenever she walks into the room. They may even compliment her looks — which might seem positive, until you think about the underlying motivation. Instead of viewing their female colleague as an equal, they are reducing her to an object of desire. All of these behaviors may seem innocent on the surface, but they have the net effect of making women feel like they don’t belong. As a result, women may decide to avoid networking or social events with colleagues, so that they are not subjected to this behavior. They then may be penalized by not being able to make connections, get good assignments, or be promoted. In this way, gender harassment has the effect of preventing women from flourishing at work.

If we are going to make progress in ending workplace sexual harassment, we must start by recognizing that not all harassment involves sexual assault or physical intimidation. Gender harassment is incredibly common in workplaces throughout the United States, and can cause emotional distress as well as career damage for its victims.

We can all be part of the solution to workplace gender harassment. For anyone who is in a position to do so, speak up when you see this type of harassment. Call out subtle comments or behavior that have the effect of belittling women or making them feel like they don’t belong. You can also report the behavior to management, which will help bolster the victim’s claims, should she choose to file a report as well.

You can also request a workplace sexual harassment training from Blackburn Center. We offer these programs free of charge to businesses, organizations and community groups throughout Westmoreland County. Our comprehensive trainings are an effective way to stop sexual and gender harassment in your place of work. Contact us today to schedule a training.

We also offer services for victims of all type of violence, including sexual harassment. Our services are available for women, children and men.

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