Sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual abuse, and issues around gender inequities have been in the forefront of news and social media venues over the past several months. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, combined with broader conversations about equality, oppression, and privilege are occurring among our colleagues, students, and clients. In this blog, we discuss sexual harassment; however, we recognize that distinctions among sexual harassment, sexual assault and abuse, and gender discrimination often become lost in public and non-legal discourse. We also acknowledge that there are often overlapping behaviors and attitudes that can be part of each distinct legal category.
To discuss something difficult (or a difficult topic?), we need some common conceptions about it. Definitions of sexual harassment differ; however, all have several common elements. Those elements include unwelcome or unwanted contact of a sexual nature, can encompass either verbal or physical behaviors, and creation of a hostile or offensive environment. In the workplace, there may be an implicit or explicit expectation that submission or rejection of the harassing behavior will impact an individual’s employment. It interferes with work (or academic) performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment. According to the Report of the Co-Chairs of the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (2016), one in four women experience sexual harassment in the workplace.
As we have watched events unfold over the past several months, we have shared experiences from both our recent and distant lives. Silvia discussed a holiday dinner she shared with her extended family. A conservative male in her family raised the topic of the Today Show’s Matt Lauer and sexual harassment in the workplace. She was “aghast at the thoughts floating in (her) head” as she found herself silently agreeing with some of what he said. Her relatives talked about his fear for men in the workplace in regard to women “who dress in a provocative manner.” What’s a man to do? “That’s where he lost me. Men are supposed to do what women who DO NOT aim to seduce men in the workplace have done forever: ignore it, pretend it’s not happening, move on . . .” She noted that it was interesting to observe how this man suddenly found himself “in a quagmire women have been facing for decades” and readily understood that the fear of negative consequences women have faced for years might be a fear that few men have considered until recently. She could not dismiss his concerns about the complex and reciprocal male/female interactions and relationships at work, nor could she ignore the reality that men are sometimes harassed by women. Nonetheless, he “lost” her.
While watching Oprah’s speech during the Golden Globes, Erin felt “the groundswell of women standing up together saying “Time’s up!” Oprah was the collective voice of women who felt empowered to say, “no more” and address injustices, which had occurred over many years in Hollywood. At the same time, she was aware that there were no women nominated for Best Director, despite the fact that there were excellent movies directed by phenomenal women. She also noted that Michelle Williams was paid 1,000 times less than her co-worker Mark Wahlberg for re-shooting scenes on the same movie even though she was represented by the same negotiating agency. For Erin, the message that women continue to receive is “sit down, be quiet, don’t mess with the status quo. You are not worth as much as a man.” While not sexual harassment, the gender inequity was stark and an atmosphere of inequality that supports sexual harassment at the same time it was being decried was stark.
Shelley pointed out that, during the same program, host Seth Meyers joked, “For the male nominees in the room tonight, this will be the first time in three months that it won't be terrifying to hear your name read out loud," which was followed by nervous laughter. She noted that Hollywood is watching the fallout from the women (and some men) speaking up about their own experiences of sexual harassment (and even assault) amongst the celebrated elite of a powerful industry. Yet we know that, in comparison to other industries, the relative percentages of reported sexual harassment is significantly lower than most other industries. It may be precisely because these women in entertainment have much more powerful voices than others, and that their voices can capture attention on the world stage. Shelley’s mother taught that it is a “man’s world” – a world that required women to accommodate to it so they could find a place within it. It may be that the current (re)awakening will finally bring some long-needed change within that world.
Marvarene noted that a major reason she did not pursue a faculty position immediately after obtaining her doctorate in 1980 was that she did not like how women in academia were treated at the time. Discussion of females’ (both students and faculty members) bodies and sexuality were not uncommon during those years and occurred in both public spaces (e.g., classrooms and meetings) and in more private venues. She recalls repeated incidents of sexual harassment in her own life as well as in the lives of students and colleagues. She agrees with a recent article by Lydia Zepeda, a professor emeritus, that age and tenure does not change the reality of addressing sexual harassment. It just shifts to providing support, mentorship, and advice to colleagues and students currently dealing with sexual harassment in their lives. Like Shelley, she hopes that the current (re)awakening will re-ignite active push-back against systems that allow and even support harassment of those with less power.
Sexual harassment is obviously not confined to cisgender females. In academia, there are studies that detail on-going pressures and choices faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender faculty members as well as the impact of university climate on the well-being of non-gender-conforming students. Impacts range from invisibility to harassment to overt abuse and hostility and beyond. One report, LGBT Climate in Physics (2016), indicates that nearly 50% of 37 transgender physicists and physics students who participated in a survey reported experiencing exclusionary and harassing behavior in the previous year. Articles aside, most of us can provide similar anecdotal evidence from colleagues and students and from those within and outside of academia.
As systemic thinkers, we are not satisfied with explanations that do not acknowledge contextual factors and micro-behaviors of individuals within broader systems. We recognize that individuals, institutions, culture, and communities enable the cycle of sexual harassment in the workplace. We encourage examination of how “who has value” and how that value is expressed in families, places of worship, media, organizations, and communities. Multiple factors continue to promote and protect the practice of sexual harassment. Multiple factors and constituencies will be required to change it. Among MFTs, multiple voices and actions are also needed. For some of us, advocating for and perhaps authoring policies that have meaning, serve as more than legal “check-off boxes,”by providing an opportunity for learning as important work. For others, helping colleagues, students, supervisees, and clients navigate sexual harassment will command our attention. Given the numbers of women who experience sexual harassment, it is likely that some of us will be navigating sexual harassment in our own lives. We can individually and collectively examine our beliefs, biases, fears, and entitlements so that all of us embrace meaning-making that supports change. We can reach out to others, speak with and for others, and lift each other up.
What we cannot do is be quiet.