Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Written by Judith Katz

The last year has brought renewed attention to sexual harassment in the workplace and the power of the #METOO and #TIMESUP movements are heartening to see. I share the hope many have that this is indeed a turning point in our culture and our organizations—a time in which women who have long suffered the indignation of sexual (and other forms of) harassment are believed—and a time in which the expectations of behaviors of men who do harass and abuse their use of power will actually change.

On the other hand, I am reminded that this is not a new conversation. In 1983, Kaleel Jamison wrote about sexual harassment in the workplace and Anita Hill’s courage led us to begin addressing these issues in organizations. However, as story after story about workplace harassment and assault makes news, it is clear that all the HR policies and practices did not stop these situations from happening.

What do we need now? Sexual harassment and the abuse of power that plays out in myriad ways, from sexual innuendo to threats to assault, and cannot be stopped solely by creating or even enforcing HR policies and practices. It requires nothing short of a cultural transformation—at home and at work. We need to create a new script for how men and women interact and what is acceptable behavior. Every woman (or man) cannot be seen as “fair game” and even attraction must be seen as a mutual and consenting experience. 

We are hopefully in the midst of redefining of what are acceptable interactions, but those interactions cannot be based on fear and avoidance. The answer to this cultural challenge cannot be going back to the dark ages—to times when men did not hire women because they were a possible “distraction,” when men were unwilling to have lunch with women colleagues or travel with them for business for fear that they might be accused of sexual harassment. We need to find ways to build healthy, respectful and honest partnerships across gender and across power. Only in that way will #METOO and #TIMESUP be catalysts for real change.