Sexual Harassment: Are We Hurting Our Own Cause?

Let’s go ahead and say that this title alone is going to turn some heads. Regardless, it’s time to lay all our cards on the table and try to clear up some of the ambiguity surrounding what constitutes sexual harassment and what doesn’t.

First, let’s take a few steps back.

2018 came in with a bang when Oprah made her unforgettable speech at the Golden Globes. As a refresher, it went a little something like this:

“So, I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault, because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.”

And thus, “Time’s Up” became a mantra. There has undoubtedly been a paradigm shift in recent months that will ultimately shape our society in the future. What’s interesting is that many of the high-profile Hollywood stars who helped spark this movement admit that they have no idea how it will impact the average Joe (Jane?). That’s a scary consideration.

In truth, we all need to be talking about sexual harassment. Not just in a long-winded tirade on social media (irony acknowledged and accepted) but to each other. Here’s what we need to discuss:


The Grey Areas

One of the oft-discussed issues that arise during the discussions surrounding sexual harassment are the grey areas. What constitutes sexual harassment? Many men in the workplace find this definition confusing and take on a defensive nature to deflect their fear and confusion. They may resort to extremes, such as, “You can’t even say ‘hi’ to a woman without it being sexual harassment now,” which is entirely untrue.

If you aren’t getting in a woman’s personal space or making or implying sexual interests, you don’t have to worry.

Or do you?

If a man makes a genuine compliment, such as “You look nice today.” and it is taken as a come on by the woman, can she not report it as sexual harassment? This is an extreme example, but it addresses what is on people’s minds since the #metoo movement hit the scene. In such a scenario, one of two things can happen: the claim will find the man in fault and impact his life or the claim will be brushed off, alienating the woman and preventing her from reporting issues in the future-- even severe cases of sexual harassment.

That is where we get our gap in communication surrounding this issue. Men in the office are afraid to communicate with women, women are afraid to address concerns with superiors, and everything falls apart.


Ethics vs. Legalities

We live in a very politically charged time in which ethics, legalities, and expectations surrounding the two are unclear and filled with opinion over fact. There are comments regarding the “spectrum of behavior” highlighting the importance of not grouping cases from all levels of severity together. There are counter-arguments that it is insensitive to say that there is no difference between an inappropriate (and yes, unacceptable) pat on the bottom and rape.

Who is right? No one? Everyone?

The Aziz Ansari situation opened up a new conversation surrounding consent. We once lived in a society that promoted “no means no” then turned that campaign into “yes means yes” and now opens up this other area where “consent should be enthusiastic.”

However, even if consent is enthusiastic, if the male involved is in a power position or the female is drunk, it is not consent and constitutes sexual harassment or rape. If the woman is in the power position or the man is drunk, is the sexual assault against the man? Regardless of gender, what happens when the feeling of being sexually assaulted (i.e., relenting vs. consenting) doesn’t meet the legal definition of sexual assault?

Ethics and legalities don’t always cross, and this is where things get ugly.


How This All Impacts Us

The spokespeople for our cause to eliminate sexual harassment have admitted that they don’t know how it will affect women at different levels. Here is what I can tell you from coaching both men and women for over a decade: these things can easily backfire on the women we are trying to help.

Women who are working their way into more prominent positions within an organization will be passed over because leaders worry about definitions and expectations. Women already have a tough time getting into leadership roles. Rather than risk the blowback, executives will promote or hire more individuals like themselves. It happens every day.

Does that mean we need to stop talking about sexual harassment?

Absolutely not. It means we need to communicate more effectively.

Now is the time to open the floodgates for discussion-- not simply stating what you believe to be true, but listening to others. Addressing concerns. Having difficult conversations. Creating definitions and outlining expectations in a clear manner. Promote collaboration and diversity by giving the women in your organization a voice and space for men to ask questions and learn. Coach your people to communicate effectively. Eliminate the grey areas and openly discuss the ethics and legalities surrounding sexual harassment and assault.

Talking at people isn’t going to change a thing. Talking with people? That can spark the power to move mountains and change the face of business culture. Don’t be afraid to be a pioneer.

If your business needs guidance in navigating these difficult conversations, contact Bloom Leadership today.

Meredith Wailes is the President of Bloom Leadership, a cutting-edge platform for business growth with a focus on Whole Person Development. Meredith works with both men and women to break communication barriers and coach her clients to success, both at an executive and ground-floor level.  For more information visit Meredith on LinkedIn and Twitter.