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Louise Ripley

Gender Issues in Management
Sexual Harassment

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man with hand on woman's shoulder

One of the greatest power issues in organizations is sexual harassment. The single most important thing to remember about sexual harassment is that it is not about sex, it's about power, and the most insidious forms, according to Judith Timson writing in the Globe and Mail in September 2004, "usually involve a person in authority using his rank to get away with anything from telling unwelcome advances to threatening reprisals if you try to complain." To that I would add only that it is not only men who sexually harass, but the majority of cases involve men harassing women.  

An example of sexual harassment as display of power: a man works for a female boss and resents her power over him. He therefore engages in subtle sexual harassment (referring to her by diminutive or insulting names such as bitch where he knows it will get back to her, coming on to her in speech in subtle ways that try to remind her that she is after all "only a woman" and he is a MAN). If the woman falls into the trap, she becomes fearful of disciplining or even approaching the man because he makes her uncomfortable. In this way he has exerted over her power that he does not legitimately have.

Canadian flagCanadian Law - Definitions of Sexual Harassment

The Supreme Court of Canada defines sexual harassment as "unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that detrimentally affects the work environment or leads to adverse job-related consequences for the victims of the harassment".

The Canada Labour Code defines sexual harassment as "any conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature that is (a) likely to cause offense or humiliation to any employee or (b) that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion"

Sexual harassment remains a serious problem; the number of cases is rising in Ontario and other provinces. But the number of complaints comes nowhere near to the number of cases. Statistics reported by the Globe and Mail ("Careers" September 8, 2004) found that in 2002, the Ontario Human Rights Commission received a total of 15,313 calls for information about sexual harassment; only 4,386 callers decided to speak to someone. Of those, only 416 asked for the document kit, and only 268 completed the forms to file an official complaint. One of the ongoing problems is that the process is so long and so difficult. Never underestimate the effort required to follow through with a formal complaint through the government.

Myths About Sexual Harassment

Myth: Whether it's Sexual Harassment depends on who is judging it 
Sexual harassment is in the eye of the receiver, not in the intent of the perpetrator. The Canada Labour Code defines sexual harassment as “any conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature that is (a) likely to cause offense or humiliation to any employee or (b) that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion”

Myth: Sexual harassment is only a women's issue 
One in 10 suits are filed by men. A male student in my 1996 Social Marketing class told us his story of harassment by his female banking bosses, including his direct supervisor who asked him to go to the drugstore over his lunch hour and buy her tampons. Gay men experience male-to-male harassment. It's not only a women's issue. I've also met a female student who experienced female-to-female sexual harassment that eventually led to a lawsuit. Nine out of ten suits are filed by women, but it exists in all forms. 

Myth: Sexual harassment doesn't happen much
Somewhere between 50 and 90% of employees have experienced sexual harassment, depending on how we define harassment, and taking into account the reluctance to admit it happened.

Myth: Harassment is about sexuality
Sexual harassment is an issue of power and dominance, not of sexuality. Don't ever ask yourself what you did wrong or what you wore or what gesture you let slip or what part of your anatomy might have provoked the harassment. It is almost never about sex; it's about power, and the fastest way to put down a person is to reduce her to a sexual object. That's what sexual harassment is all about. 

Myth: False accusations are rampant
False accusations are at most 5%. Ask yourself -- Who would bother? Why would anyone put oneself through that if it weren't true? If someone complains, the odds are it is genuine. 

Myth: Forbidding sexual harassment will stifle office humour
Just exactly who decides whether something is funny? if you fail to find funny a joke made at your expense, do you lack a sense of humour? If the kind of humour that's made at someone's expense IS stifled, maybe that's a good thing. 

Myth: Sexual Harassment doesn't cost anyone anything

The Costs of Sexual Harassment

Economic Costs
bag of money

Non-Economic Costs
medical tests

25% of respondents had to leave jobs after being harassed

Damage to physical health
Health care costs for stress  Esteem and guilt issues - "it must be my fault"

Costs of defense in lawsuits can run in the millions

Lowering of firm's reputation
and of employee morale

Reduced productivity

Opportunity cost - people could be doing something better with their time

Haywood Securities: The Conference
© M Louise Ripley

Laurie's initial excitement at being asked by Jack to attend the Investment Advisors Conference in Toronto was instantly flattened when she learned that Rob Burns was also going. Rob Burns was a white haired, blustery Scotsman with a well-earned reputation as a male chauvinist. Rob was only five years Jack’s senior, but looked much older. While Jack took care of himself, rarely drank, and watched his weight, Rob had led a wilder life. Their fathers started the firm together after the Great Depression; investors needed solid advice on re-entering a shaky market, and both Charles Haywood and Joseph Burns possessed a talent for choosing wise investments and instructing others in doing the same. They left the firm where they both worked and started an investment advisory business. Each brought enough capital to purchase some office equipment and cover the first year’s rent, and for more than twenty years they worked well together and prospered. But their sons had never got along together.

When Jack had grudgingly taken his father's advice and appointed Laurie as a Financial Analyst, he had assigned her formally to report to Rob; Laurie was certain he did it out of spite. At first, Laurie was surprised to find Rob to be tremendously supportive, but she would soon come to understand that Rob, like many males of his age, supported her only as long as she did exactly what he wanted. His assumed right to chauvinist behaviour and language particularly grated on Laurie, as did his automatic assumption of superiority simply by virtue of being male, in addition to being senior to her in position.  Laurie was particularly wary of him when he had been drinking. It was this latter trait that especially worried her about attending the conference with him. She talked to her partner Pat that evening about it.

Laurie: I can just see it now, Pat; we'll be entertaining clients in the suite because that's what Jack expects of us, but once the last client has gone, I'll be alone with him. He'll be all over me.

Pat: Can't you get out of the late evening drinking parties? Tell them you've got to be up early for a meeting or something?

Laurie: It's not just the late night drinking, Pat; it's everywhere. When we go out to lunch with a client, even if it's supposedly MY client, he always takes charge. He signals the maitre d', he orders the wine, he gets the cheque. Jack's always taught me the control in the client-firm relationship that those things determine, but they also give an aura of control over anyone at the table, and that for Rob includes me.

Pat: Well, he's hardly the grope and feel type is he? I mean, can't you just ignore him?

Laurie: It's pretty difficult, Pat. He's persistent. I won't get any real work done, any connecting with important clients, if he's always at my elbow, coming on to me.

Pat: Can you talk to someone at work? Can you ask Jack? No, wait, forget I said that! Of course you can't talk to Jack. Is there anyone else you can talk to? A Human Resources person?

Laurie: We're not a big enough company either to have all those kinds of staff, or for any kind of complaint to remain anonymous. Besides, Rob's too clever. I wouldn't put it past him to spread rumours that I'm the one who's after him, just in case I ever do complain. And who's going to believe me?

What should Laurie do?

This case study builds on an idea from Barbara Lyons' "General Computer" in Karsten, Foegen Margaret (1994) Management and Gender: Issues and Attitudes. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.

waving hand Exercise
$exual Harassment
What are some of the unseen non-economic costs that are already happening at Haywood Securities, where Laurie works in this case study?
Post your answer in the
Moodle Discussion Group.

Meet John and Marsha

man and woman shaking hands

All too often we hear people say things like, "it's getting so I can't even compliment a woman at the office any more" indicating a woeful lack of understanding of what sexual harassment is all about. Read through this exercise below (in the classroom I get students to actually play the roles). Think about the difference between polite conversation and sexual harassment. 

John and Marsha work together in the Marketing Department of a large firm. 
They are both middle managers. 

Marsha (in a friendly voice): Hi John. Hey, good-looking shirt you've got on!  
John (in a comfortable voice): Thanks, my wife gave it to me for our anniversary. 

John and Marsha work together in the Marketing Department of a large firm. 
Marsha is a middle level manager, and John is a clerical worker under her supervision.

Marsha (same voice, words): Hi John. Hey, good-looking shirt you've got on!  
John (same voice, words): Thanks, my wife gave it to me for our anniversary. 

John and Marsha work together in the Marketing Department of a large firm. 
Marsha is a middle level manager, and John is a clerical worker under her supervision.  

Marsha (in a sultry voice): Hi there John! How's my favourite guy today? My, that is one sexy shirt you've got on. I love the way it brings out the colour of your eyes.

John (in an uncomfortable voice): Um, uh, well, uh, uh, thank you. Say, do you have those files I was going to go through this morning? 

waving hand Exercise
John and Marsha
Describe how John is feeling right now. Imagine that you, as a fellow employee, overheard this conversation. How do you feel? What do you think about John? What should Marsha's manager (boss) do?
Post your answer in the Moodle Discussion Group.

What assumptions are you led to make about John's relationship with his boss? Subjected to this kind of treatment, day in and day out, what do you think will eventually happen to John's feelings about himself and his job? Can he expect to be taken seriously as a professional member of the work force? This is what harassment does to us, to every single one of us who ever experiences it, to those who suffer it directly and to those who overhear it or see it happening; it is detrimental even to those who perpetrate it. Sexual harassment has no place in the workplace. Period. It is demeaning and insulting. It has absolutely nothing to do with pleasant person-to-person relationships, with friendship, with compliments. It is a power trip, and it is destructive and vicious, pure and simple. Don't waste your time trying to defend it and try to see that you never perpetrate it.

When (sadly) Colour Isn't A Barrier  

woman of colour at computer

Colour is not only no barrier to sexual harassment, but in fact women of colour often experience more sexual harassment. Several factors contribute to this

Traditional attitudes of male and white supremacy
Concentration in lower jobs which are more common targets for harassment
Myths about African women "Sand and sea, and rum" - true tales from my African-Canadian colleague, Professor Althea Prince. 

I once asked Professor Prince to come and address my Women and Business class about racism, and she surprised and educated me by stating that she would be glad to come talk about her business experience but that it was not her job to talk about racism; she's not the racist. I recognized immediately my own reluctance all my years at York to serve on committees dealing with sexism because I'm not the sexist. And I also recognized that I had always been reluctant to presume to talk in the classroom about racism because I am white. 

waving hand Exercise
Think about the use of power inherent in the requesting of women to serve on the committees to solve sexism and people of colour to serve on the committees to solve racism. Whose job is it to talk about these issues? How can management help?
Post your answer in the Moodle Discussion Group.

Preventative Programmes
Policy papers written in easy-to-understand language
distributed to everyone
discussed with managers

people in training class
nature of problem
internal channels for reporting
investigation procedures
links between harassment and
suggestions for dealing with it
      "ignoring it" doesn't work
      government agency as last resort
Sherlock Holmes investigating
Willingness to Investigate
quickly and with protection for the complainant 
woman reading to little girl
The Best Solution?
ask yourself, would you do/say it to your parent, sister, child? 
If not, don't do it. 

waving hand Exercise
Handling Harassment
What are some specific ways of dealing with sexual harassment that you would recommend to Laurie in the Haywood Securities Case you read above? What would you do as the manager in charge of the section where she works? 
Post your answer in the Moodle Discussion Group.

Sheryl Sandberg's Book Lean In

waving hand Exercise
Sandberg Sexual Harassment
How does Sheryl Sandbert's book Lean In help you further understand the topic of this unit?
Post your answer in the Moodle  Discussion Group.


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AP/ADMS/WMST3120 3.0 Gender Issues in Management
York University, Toronto
© M Louise Ripley, M.B.A., Ph.D.