Why men deny sexually harassing women at work
02 September 2015, 08:14
“Would you do a three-way?” (John*), one of the heads of department, asked me.
It was my first job. I was 22. I came in as a junior, and was one of several women in a team of writers. (John*) had a reputation for being offensive and a loud-mouth. He wore the title ‘chauvinist’ with the kind of jokey pride you see in high school boys.
Over the next few months, I witnessed John say some of the most repulsive things to female co-workers, some of which include:
- “You’re a slut” (after witnessing a member of his team kiss someone at an office function)
- “Why did you paint your nails like a whore?”
- “You're getting fat” while grabbing a colleagues hips
- “You’re a fake lesbian. All you need is a good fuck from the right guy - I’m willing to do the deed” (to a female colleague who didn’t want to look at a photo of a naked woman)
- “The only reason I hired you was because of your boobs
At one point, he snapped a picture of a female colleague (Lila*), whose skirt had been blown up by the wind, which he proceeded to show the photo to others in the office. She was the only one brave enough to take him to HR.
Why did he get away with it?
This was the norm. Though it was known in the office that John made most women feel uncomfortable, he had become part of the office culture. He was the guy that got rides from everyone, got drunk with everyone and joked with everyone.
People have a hard time accepting that men they know and like can be guilty of sexual misconduct. When I asked about his behaviour in my second week, I was told by a team members that “that’s just who he is”.
So John continued to say what he wanted to say on the basis of being “who he is”.
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That’s when I realised that the workplace is no different to any other environment for women - where sexual harassment and misconduct is not about incidents, but about culture. When discrimination and indignity is supported and tolerated in any culture, it’s astounding how quickly one can get used to it.
It seemed that every woman in the office acclimatised to it too, because when HR finally asked about John, only Lila came forward. Not one other woman, including me, said anything – which in itself is a powerful commentary on what we had come to accept as normal.
The language of sexual violation
In 1994 the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) defined sexual harassment as “any unwanted conduct, which is sexual in nature, and can be physical, verbal or non-verbal. The conduct must affect the dignity of the person affected or create a negative or hostile environment. Implicit in the conduct, is an element of coercion or abuse of power."
The terminology sounds simple enough, but my experience of office sexual harassment was anything but.
Sexual misconduct of any kind is always shrouded in semantics. A recent study from researchers at the University of North Dakota threw into light the role of language when it comes to men’s understanding of sexual assault. Among the respondents, a group of 73 straight male students, one in three reported that they would force a woman to have sex if they knew they could get away with it. According to the report, 31 percent of the men surveyed said they would force a woman to have sex “if nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences.”
But when researchers asked the same question, this time dropping the language of forced sex and using the word rape instead, that number dropped to 13 percent: “Respondents, it seems, were comfortable with the act of rape, just not the name.”
Similarly, most men who engage or instigate sexual harassment at work are likely not self-identified creeps. They don’t regard what they do as ‘sexual harassment’. Sometimes their behaviour is unintentional, and other times it’s pouched in denial: “I don’t sexually harass women, I simply make dude-jokes that the ladies don’t get!”
Like the majority of rapists and racists, they refuse to admit the label that defines their behaviour.
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Tolerance of misogyny
This kind of harassment thrives off ambiguity and is fuelled by rape culture. People don’t report it because it’s usually someone they know, they don’t want to be blamed and they don’t want to be stigmatised. Most importantly, they don’t know if it really was violation.
Once you pull the first brick out of the pile, the whole wall starts to crumble and everyone who was complicit gets hit. It’s not simply about the perpetrator, but about his friends in the office, the other seniors, apathetic managers, and worst of all, the people who have seen his behaviour but think it’s “not a big deal”.
For most women, it’s easier to simply suffer the harassment and look the other way – which, to be frank, is something we do every day, regardless. It’s basically the female modus operandi for living. Why should the workplace be any different?
Except it should.
It should be different and it should be called out and organisations should be held accountable. This kind of discrimination didn’t materialise when the person said or did something inappropriate. It started when they realised that they can say things like that.
It started when management and companies decided not to actively engage in conversations around sexual harassment. Companies alone may not be responsible for global gender inequality, but they do have a legal responsibility to protect employees and they can be held accountable for that.
Talk about it
If this is something that you’re facing, do not remain quiet. There are 3 basic steps you should consider:
1. If someone says or does something inappropriate, confront them as soon as possible. Often it’s unintentional and drawing a line will show them boundaries.
2. Failing that. Bring it to the attention of Human Resources. They’re there for a reason. Use them.
3. Failing that. The CCMA is your friend. They respond fast and they put the fear of God into companies.
These three steps can help make your life easier but they unfortunately come with no guarantees. Regardless of how women go about it, the sad statistical truth is that tackling sexual harassment is not simple and most companies deal with in the way that conservatives deal with sex-education – by not dealing with it.
Right now, harassment against women in any situation is the accepted norm. We’re told that every human being has the right to dignity, yet in practice we’re taught something very different. The normalisation of these kinds of gender dynamics can only be changed when they’re challenged – not just by individuals, but by organisations and businesses.
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