How to Address Sexual Harassment

This semester, I have had three female students speak with me about challenges they have faced with sexual harassment in the workplace. All the students were female, one a mature student, while the others were young adults. Our society sometimes seems very accommodating of unsuitable behaviours toward women in the workplace. According to one student; it is relatively easy to commiserate with a woman and brush the incident off with a “… get over it, you’re tough!” comment at the end of a heart-to-heart talk. We also tend to discuss whether the victim’s behaviour, clothing, or even attitude invited the unwanted attention.  We seem ever ready to speak of the easy-going ways of our people, and people still laugh off the decades-old local epigram that a “deputy essential”. But that assumes that  both parties are willing to have a relationship. When this is not so, when one party makes unwanted advances toward the other, there is a very real option to step up and oppose it.

Though fewer men report being sexually harassed, men are also unfortunate victims. Perhaps our societal norms put pressure on males to suppress reports against their harassers, and perhaps there is a lower occurrence of this behaviour against males. Ultimately, know that sexual harassment victims are not always female, and sexual harassment perpetrators are not always male.

Sexual harassment could include any of the following, whether this happens just once or repeatedly. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s quick guide, sexual harassment “…can involve conduct such as:

  • unwelcome touching, hugging or kissing,
  • staring or leering,
  • suggestive comments or jokes,
  • sexually explicit pictures, screen savers or posters,
  • unwanted invitations to go out on dates or requests for sex,
  • intrusive questions about an employee’s private life or body,
  • unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against someone,
  • insults or taunts of a sexual nature,
  • sexually explicit emails or SMS messages,
  • accessing sexually explicit internet sites,
  • inappropriate advances on social networking sites,
  • behaviour which would also be an offence under the criminal law, such as physical assault, indecent exposure, sexual assault, stalking or obscene communications.”

How should you respond? Well, further to saying no, here are some steps to follow, which I have based on a 2016 article in Forbes.com:

  1. Keep documentation (i.e. a written record of dates, times, places, and witnesses-if any) of each time you are offered something in return if you do, or threatened with negative consequences if you don’t, do something the harasser wants.
  2. Document events and treatment that put pressure on you specifically because of your gender. In the case where this type of hostile environment exists, others of your gender may also be experiencing harassment, so your documentation might note this as well.
  3. Keep your notes secure, so they cannot become lost, damaged, or otherwise inaccessible.
  4. Keep your evidence. Do not delete emails or throw away notes or cards, to example. Print photos, screenshots, emails, etc. in case your device crashes or you have some other electronic difficulty.
  5. Report the sexual harassment to the necessary authority at work. If your workplace has a sexual harassment policy, make sure you are familiar with it, and make your report to the correct person. Where the person to whom you should report the harassment is the harasser, there should be an alternative person to whom reports should be made. Also, if your report is made verbally, follow it up with a written report.
  6. Where you are also interested in seeking legal recourse, visit with an employment lawyer, and follow that person’s advice.
  7. You are not forced to leave your job – it is your right to stay in your job. However, if you are uncomfortable, the choice also exists for you to start looking for an alternative place of work.

Remember, we can only promote respect and equality in our workplaces if we stand up to wrongdoers by lodging formal reports, sharing evidence if we have any, and involving those in power to change the status quo. No matter where sexual harassment is taking place – our workplaces, communities, or schools – we must refuse to tolerate it or pretend it is not occurring. Sexual harassment is not about attraction. It is about power – power being exerted by the harasser and attempts to take power away from the victim. Harassment that is not curbed will ramp up, and when you stand up to harassment, you are making it less likely that others will be harassed in a similar way.

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