Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

Yup, We're Still Talking About It.


  • Thought Leadership
December 02, 2021 Angela Barnett

It’s vital organisations have sexual harassment policies in place but, as Ali Mau wrote, on one of her many investigations in her #metoo work, “There's nothing organisations love to shout about louder than their "policies”. If I had a single dollar for every time I've been told about “our policies” by an organisation's leaders in the past three years, I'd be waving goodbye to you all from the stern of my super yacht right now.”

If an organisation wants to get the GenderTick they have to have a detailed gender-sensitive sexual harassment policy in place—along with a bullying and harassment policy, a rainbow policy and transitioning policy—and this has to sit alongside a clear process to manage sexual harassment complaints, that all employees know about.

But it’s not enough.

Policies and processes are vital to lean on but there also needs to be a culture that has zero tolerance for any sexual harassment, and training on what to do if and when it surfaces. Because one thing is almost guaranteed: it will surface. 

Thanks to the incredible work of the #MeToo movement, overt sexual advances like being propositioned or slapped on the arse in the lunch room are often called out. Or at the very least, are known to be not acceptable.

But that’s not the most common type of harassment in 2021. Sexual provocation is usually less visible.

It might be late-night texts or images, sexually charged comments that are unwelcome or meetings that turn into unsolicited dates. The harassment can come through social media, or emails or text. Or outside the office.

Any of the following can be sexual harassment if they happen often enough or are severe enough to make an employee uncomfortable, intimidated, or distracted enough to interfere with their work:

  • repeated compliments of an employee's appearance
  • commenting on the attractiveness of others in front of an employee
  • discussing one's sex life in front of an employee
  • asking an employee about his or her sex life
  • circulating nude photos or photos of women in bikinis or shirtless men in the workplace
  • making sexual jokes
  • sending sexually suggestive text messages or emails
  • leaving unwanted gifts of a sexual or romantic nature
  • spreading sexual rumours about an employee, or
  • repeated hugs or other unwanted touching (such as a hand on an employee's back).

And if an employee is a young woman between the ages of 18-29, or from the BIPOC, rainbow or disabilities communities the chances of being sexually harassed are increased as the intersection of sexism and racism, ableism, and trans and homophobia come into play. One in four women will experience sexual assault in Aotearoa and over 89% of women who identify from the LGBTQ+ and disability communities experience sexual harassment in their working lifetime. 

These stats are not OK.

Yet still, even with clear sexual harassment policies in place that stipulate what qualifies as not acceptable, it’s still hard for some employees to call out behaviour, for a real fear of losing their job, position or promotional opportunities.

The culture creates this fear. People with job insecurity—and numbers have gone up in our current pandemic climate—experience more than double the rate of harassment, bullying and discrimination. 

Like an ecosystem, culture’s grow and expand over time, and they’re harder to change. That’s why the GenderTick has also created advanced criteria that includes specific training for all employees on sexual ethics, including what is and is not acceptable behaviour, what bystanders should do, how sexism and other ism’s play out, and ensuring everyone is clear about the complaints procedure. 

Because, as seen from the list above, it’s not only physical advances. It’s words. It’s compliments. It’s requests for things. 

The advanced GenderTick criteria has also added a stipulation that organisations must establish a regular way to measure and identify gender-based sexual harassment in their culture. Many do this in an annual survey, where employees feel safer sharing what’s happening anonymously, knowing a manager will be made aware of it. Capturing harassment before it escalates is a much better outcome for employees and employers - and having some form of measurement in place helps do this. 

The most important thing is that individuals are not expected to ‘fix’ any situation—employees need to know that there are clear processes, policies, boundaries, expectations, bystander protection, understanding, awareness, training and measures in place that will protect them. And if they’re not, then it’s the culture and systems that need fixing.

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

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