What is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that consists of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature (Alllaw, 2018). It is embedded in our culture in what Stern (Slate News, Oct., 2018) identified as toxic sexism. It has been applied to discrimination in the workplace through Title Vii. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted by Congress to address discrimination due to age, race or sex in the workplace.
Types of Sexual Harassment
Legally sexual harassment has been recognized as either quid pro quo or hostile work environment.
Quid Pro Quo
In quid pro quo harassment, there is an inherent power differential, where the person in power (e.g., supervisor) puts pressure on the supervised individual for sexual favors. The employee or subordinate individual feels threatened (whether explicitly stated or not) with losing position, status, or employment. An example of quid pro quo sexual harassment is when a boss threatens to fire an employee who does not submit to sexual advances, or alternatively offers promotion in exchange for sexual favors.
Hostile Work Environment
The other form of sexual harassment recognized by the law is hostile work environment. This situation is created when the environment has become intimidating, hostile, or offensive due to unwelcome sexual conduct. For example the conditions for this type of hostile environment may occur from unwelcome sexual advances by a colleague. However, it does not have to be sexual advances at all. The environment may be created by offensive sexual language, discussions about sex or jokes or displays of sexually oriented materials. The implication is that the employer or supervisor should make sure that the work environment is free from any inherent harassment.
Targets of Sexual Harassment
It is inaccurate to believe that only women are sexually harassed. Both men and women may be victims of sexual harassment. The victim and harasser may be of the same or opposite sex. An individual does not have to be a direct target to be a victim of sexual harassment. Anyone who witnesses the conduct is considered a victim.
Employer Responsibility to Protect against Sexual Harassment
Employers must maintain a work environment that is free from sexual harassment. They must take remedial actions as soon as any sexual harassment has been identified as they may be held liable. They should establish a policy providing for the prevention, reporting, investigation, and punishment of sexual harassment. When employers fail to perform their fiduciary responsibility for employees through reckless indifference, they may be held liable. While indiscretions by a supervisor demonstrates violation of sexual harassment protection, even violations by low level employees or outside third parties are considered violations for which the employer may be held liable. Another way employers can be held liable is to know of the situation but do nothing to resolve it. These egregious examples of disregard for employee well-being contribute to harm that may be physical or psychological.
Side Effects of Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment, especially if it is ongoing, may cause significant harm to victims. This harm may be physical, psychological or vocational. Individuals who have been victims of sexual harassment have described many psychological symptoms similar to response to traumatic stress. Stanford University (Effects of Sexual Harassment) reported the following side effects:
Insecurity, low self-esteem, and feelings of powerlessness
* Fear, frustration, anger, and irritability
* Self-blame, shame, or guilt
* Depression, shock, or denial
Although sexual harassment may or may not include
physical interaction, it may cause significant physical side effects due to additional trauma or stress:
* Headaches or migraines
* Night terrors, nightmares, or trouble sleeping
* Fluctuations in weight
* Sexual problems; lack of drive or ability
* Skin reactions
* Digestive or gastrointestinal issues
* Panic attacks
* Development of phobias
Due to the physical and psychological effects
of this undue harassment, many individuals have to change academic programs, leave jobs, change career paths and even life goals. The Stanford study reported implications such as:
* Decreased interest in job performance
* Poor job performance evaluations
* Termination or loss of promotion chance
* Sharp decline in work performance or academic work
* Frequent absenteeism
* Change in career goals or path without warning
* Withdrawal from work, school, or even social situations
Fitzgerald, L.F., Gelfand, M.J., & Drasgow, F. (1995). Measuring sexual harassment: Theoretical and psychometric advances. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 17(4), 425-445
Sexual Harassment in the workplace defined
LeMaire, K. L., Oswald, D. L., & Russell, B. L. (2016). Labeling sexual victimization experiences: The role of sexism, rape myth acceptance, and tolerance for sexual harassment. Violence and Victims, 31(2), 332-346.