University of Illinois at Chicago’s Barbara Risman recently told CNN readers that there are two types of sexual harassment. The first is usually easy to spot. “A really detestable (usually) man gives his (usually) female subordinate employee or student an ultimatum: Put out or lose some opportunity, be it a grade, a job or a promotion.” As Risman explains, this type of harassment was commonplace during the era of Don Draper and Roger Sterling, but we’ve come a long way since then.
But then there is the other kind of sexual harassment, the behavior that makes the workplace uncomfortable, that creates an environment that is hostile to women in general, or just to one person because of her (or his) sex, gender, race or ethnicity. Everyone agrees that workplaces ought not to differentiate between actors simply because of their sex, gender, race or ethnicity. But beyond that, when sex and gender are involved, we often get into a “he said/she said” dialogue. For example, he believed the jokes were simply funny and created a more friendly setting; she believed they were offensive and created an us (the boys) versus them (her or her and other women) organizational climate where she was always going to be outside the loop, outside informal conversations and social networks that mattered.
If we look at sexual harassment in terms of he said/she said, though, Riseman argues that there will never be a solution. We can’t deny that many people meet their partners in the workplace. Yet, we also can’t deny that we live in a world where power is not equally shared and where workplaces are not integrated by sex. In fact, integration by sex has stalled; more women are getting degrees, but they are remaining in traditionally female-dominated fields. According to Riseman, this may be because of the workplace cultures that include sexual innuendo and sexual harassment.
I don’t have an easy answer, but I do know we’ll never solve the problem by trying to figure out what he said or she said. Instead, we have to decide what, as a society, we want to be acceptable or not in our workplaces and schools and then enforce the norms with legal penalties. Here’s a first volley: It should be illegal for men (or women) to make sexual overtures to their subordinates. End of story. Power always gets in the way of easily saying no. But more than that, if we want workplaces that do not privilege the men who have previously dominated the social space, we need to change the culture in which sexual banter objectifies women and turns them into the “other,” and take seriously the claims by women that men harass them.
Because, as Riseman eloquently notes, “The more subtle kind of sexual harassment has consequences not only for the individual woman who finally complains, but for all of us, by sustaining a culture where the powerful positions in many occupations, including politics, remain dominated by men.”