Due to recent events published about sexual harassment in STEM-related fields, I decided to ask some past and present colleagues, both male and female, some questions on this topic.
I uncovered some upsetting things. People I care for had been subjected to incidents that hurt them. Others have seen things and tried to intervene. Some managers have been able to really resolve these incidents and bring the guilty parties to book, but in all instances, there were scars left behind. It took me some time to process what I had learned.
Both women and men are subject to sexual harassment, of course, but I will keep to what I have experienced and learned, and share the female perspective on this matter here.
These were the questions I asked:
• Why are certain women subjected to sexual harassment, and not others?
• What influence do factors such as appearance, dress and personality have on one's
likelihood of being harassed?
• What do men think about other men who harass women?
• What do women think about other women who report harassment?
• What can organizations do to reduce instances of harassment?
I will share what I have learned, and some of my own views on these questions.
Women who have been the victims of harassment sometimes wonder if they could have avoided the incidents. They are concerned that they behaved inappropriately, appeared vulnerable or dressed in a way to lead others on. I do not believe any of the above. Someone who expresses unwanted attention towards a colleague and thus makes her feel unsafe at work is inexcusable. Having said this, I would also advise women to err on the side of caution. Not because it will avoid harassment, but you may avoid second-guessing yourself. Dress professionally for your environment. Act cautiously when interacting with colleagues and clients alike, and be very firm at the first signs of unwelcome attention. Harassment is about the harasser, but make sure you send a message that you are not to be preyed upon.
Men have generally expressed very negative sentiments towards fellow men that harass women. Unfortunately, I was also told by women that some male bosses either laughed when such incidents occurred, made light of it or were so uncomfortable in dealing with it that they wished they never reported it. I feel that lip service form our male colleagues are not enough. I would like to ask for a proactive stand in order to ensure that there is absolutely no doubt in anybody's mind as to whether this would be acceptable behavior.
I felt that women were generally supportive of others who reported harassment. Some reported skepticism and distrust in cases where they did not know the person well. To me, the minute a person feels harassed or uncomfortable in the workplace it affects their performance, and is worthy of consideration by management. Senior women in organizations will help a lot by having an approachable persona and a supportive attitude towards harassment victims. It may be easier to speak to women in some cases.
I believe many employers can do more to prevent harassment. Most companies cover harassment in their company policies and disciplinary codes. In many countries and states this is required by the labor law. Fewer companies present proactive training on this topic.
The benefits of mandatory harassment training will be the following:
• The corporation will take a clear stand on this matter.
• The policy will be known to all employees and managers.
• Managers will be trained on both the policy and how to deal with incidents (other than
read up in the event of an incident)
• Employees will know who to speak to, and they also know that their concerns will be taken seriously.
• Usually such incidents are supported by the human resources department, but in today's organizations these departments are sometimes on a different site as the employees. Better trained managers will be better equipped to facilitate remote discussions with human resources departments.
I know with absolute certainty that people do their best work in environments where they feel safe and trusted. This applies to teams, being a manager and being managed. Any feelings of persecution or harassment are immediately counterproductive to a corporation. It affects an individual's ability to focus and concentrate and it takes the joy out of their work. It should not be overlooked. It should not be belittled or ridiculed and it should not be swept under the carpet. Let's not be naïve -- women working for some of the best employers in the STEM fields globally are hurt by harassment. Imagine this to be your sister or your daughter and help stomp this out.