How Organizations Can Put an End to Sexual Harassment

Nothing’s foolproof, but there are research-proven changes companies could make.

To start with, having more women employees, particularly in leadership roles, can reduce the incidence of harassment. Why? It’s not that women are somehow themselves preventing the behavior—in fact women too can be perpetrators—but that male-dominated organizations are more likely to have cultures characterized by aggressive and competitive behaviors and so-called locker-room culture. In addition, compared with women, men tend to have more trouble recognizing when women are being treated in an unfair or sexist way. This sets the stage for harassment: In such contexts, norms of professionalism can give way to boorish interactions in which women are treated as sexualized pawns rather than as valued and competent work colleagues. And if men are less likely to label what their male colleagues are doing as inappropriate, it can make matters worse.

What’s more is that in these hyper masculine settings, when women rise up the ranks, men can feel that their dominance is being threatened. In fact, the most common form of harassment is not the solicitation of sex, but rather what’s called gender harassment—sexist comments, obscene gestures—which serve as tools for putting women “in their place.” Women who violate feminine ideals by having a “man’s job” or behaving in “masculine” ways such as expressing strong opinions, being assertive, and having supervisory roles are more likely to experience such harassment.

Another general principle is that hierarchy seems to increase the odds of harassment occurring. Of course, most organizations are hierarchical to some extent, but what matters is the degree of the power imbalances among different people in the system. Studies have found that having power enables people to do as they please, often at the expense of taking other people’s perspectives into consideration. Research has also shown that in the minds of men with a high proclivity to harass, power and sex are closely linked. Moreover, their power shields them from scrutiny, criticism, and punishment. As a result, having power over others is often corruptive, in that it can lead people to behave badly, lack empathy, and even to engage in socially inappropriate or sexualized behavior. In contrast, powerlessness is associated with fear and embarrassment and a heightened sensitivity to threat. In contexts with greater hierarchy, higher-ups may be more inclined to behave badly, while at the same time subordinates are less able to push back.

A type of hierarchical situation that is rife for sexual harassment is one in which powerful individuals have a lot of discretion and a singular capacity to make or break an underling’s career. The story often follows similar lines: A harasser’s high status provides cover for their actions because victims and bystanders are leery of what will happen to them if they speak up. If the perpetrator holds the keys to your future, it can be hard to come forward or fight back. Time and again, harassers get away with it because there is a low probability of both discovery and punishment.

At its core, sexual harassment is about unequal power relations between men and women at work, at school, and in society at large. Vulnerability is a hallmark of both who gets targeted and why victims keep silent. The waitress earning minimum wage who is expected to put up with sexist comments from customers; the woman farmworker who is sexually assaulted in the field and then threatened into silence by her employer; the intern who must fend off repeated advances from a senior leader to keep her position. It is the most vulnerable women among us, those with less education, who hold low-paid service jobs or lower-level administrative jobs, who are racial and ethnic minorities, or who have been victimized before, who are harassed more frequently. And few victims ever come forward because of legitimate concerns that retribution could put them out of a job.

If power imbalances leave those at the bottom of the hierarchy vulnerable, more needs to be done to even out the scales. Strong HR departments that are empowered to protect employees and rewarded when they do, hotlines that are staffed (not recordings), and anonymous reporting mechanisms can do a lot to give voice to people who often have none.   

The third factor, and the single biggest predictor of sexual harassment on the job, is how permissive an organization is of this conduct. Permissive organizations are ones in which employees feel it is risky to report sexual harassment, think that their complaints won’t be taken seriously, and believe that perpetrators will face few to no consequences. This may seem circular, and in a way,  it is—harassment begets more harassment—but it also implies an important lesson: Cracking down on harassers, severely and transparently, discourages the behavior across an organization.

What determines whether or not a company is tolerant of sexual harassment? 

In a word, leadership. Do managers work to prevent harassment by talking about company policies and modeling appropriate ways of treating and interacting with coworkers?  Do they ensure that claims of harassment are promptly investigated and that punishments are handed out—even when the perpetrator is a top performer or a higher-up? When leaders take sexual harassment seriously, it’s less likely to occur. The odds of it happening go up when company leaders condone misconduct by ignoring it, discouraging people from coming forward, failing to act, or engaging in harassing behaviors themselves.

Sexual harassment leads to many negative outcomes. Targets of harassment can have:

  1. Reduced mental and physical health
  2. Lower job satisfaction
  3. Greater workplace withdrawal. 

They suffer real costs to their careers. When women have to quit to get away from threatening situations, they often wind up in lower-paying jobs with worse long-term professional prospects. There are organizational consequences as well, all of which hit the bottom line. Not only are the costs of litigation high, but in environments that are more hostile to women there can be more team conflict and reduced workgroup productivity.

As bad as all of this is, there is also the implication that companies can do a lot to address and prevent sexual harassment. Strong policies—with real teeth—and training are essential. In both; 

  1. Harassment should be clearly defined
  2. Protocols established for what employees should do when they see it happening
  3. Disciplinary consequences should be clear
  4. Confidentiality for the victim should be maintained
  5. And retribution against him or her prohibited.

Gender equity efforts are also central. If male-dominated structures uphold a system of sexual harassment, such structures need to be changed, and women need to be promoted to upper levels. Even so, more women in management won’t alone eliminate sexual harassment, and plenty of organization with women in top leadership positions still have problems. But greater numbers of women can create more equity in the power men and women hold inside companies. More women can also do a lot to tamp down hyper-masculine cultures that degrade and demean women.

Men play an important role in counteracting sexism as well. Research shows that people take men’s complaints about sexism more seriously than they take women’s, perhaps because men are not seen as directly benefiting from doing so (and, perhaps, because people implicitly trust men more on these matters than they trust women, even though the vast majority of perpetrators are men and the vast majority of victims are women).                 

Ultimately, all of this comes down to whether senior leadership takes this issue seriously or not. A study from the military found that when women felt that their leaders were working to combat sexual harassment and modeled respectful behavior they reported experiencing less harassment and, if they filed a complaint, were more satisfied with what happened. Thus, when leaders take visible, consistent, and firm stands that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated, it creates safer and more inclusive environments. When leaders remain mum, as Jeff Bezos of Amazon has, it can do the opposite.

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