In popular culture sexual harassment has often been played for laughs. A balding, portly, fifty-something male middle manager pursues his young secretary, who rebuffs his desperate attempts to woo her. Innuendos, lewd comments and maybe the odd bum pinch thrown in make it all very Carry On At The Office. And the joke is always on him.
Real life victims of sexual harassment of course know that fending off advances from your boss is far from funny. Being subjected to harassment usually takes its toll on professional and personal relationships and can result in humiliation, loss of self-confidence, insomnia, stress, nausea, eating problems and panic attacks.
Someone who is being harassed normally feels completely alone and will keep their suffering a secret, even from their partner.
“Many people fear how their partner will respond, that they will be accused of inviting the attention. But actually the fear often doesn’t match the reality and many partners are very supportive,” says Abigail Finnegan.
As the chief executive of Safety Net Advice and Support Centre, she has come across many cases where people’s lives have been devastated by sexual harassment at work.
It is not uncommon for people to endure years of harassment before eventually deciding to leave their job and take another one that pays less or has a much lower status in their desperation to leave an abusive workplace.
So devastating can the impact be, that in some cases people will stop working altogether, says Finnegan. “We see people who are totally destroyed. They feel very, very alone and their self-confidence goes out of the window. They feel they have let this happen.”
Blaming yourself is a common reaction to being harassed, as is the failure to identify what is happening, especially in the beginning, as sexual harassment. By nature harassment is often, although not always, insidious. It may begin with seemingly innocuous comments such as compliments about what you’re wearing.
Such behaviour is the harasser’s way of testing the reaction of the other person and what they may be able to get away with, explains Finnegan, adding: “Many people will normalise the behaviour. It will often start with flattery but then it becomes out of control for the woman. So when a woman is told ‘nice skirt’ she will often feel she cannot say she doesn’t want that said in case she is accused of going off the deep-end, of being a raging feminist and frigid. So it’s laughed off and the next thing is what was ‘harmless fun’ rapidly turns into a hand on your bum.”
John Kremer is a harassment officer at Queen’s University in Belfast, which involves mediating cases of harassment. He says that harassment happens in work environments where people feel their behaviour will not be challenged.
While this may bring to mind the textbook case of a male senior manager harassing a younger woman in the private sector, Kremer says that he has come across some appalling cases in the health and social care world, notably in the charitable sector.
“Often there is a huge difference between the public face and the personal. There is something about people who are doing ‘good works’ which they feel justifies bullying and harassment,” he argues.
Research by the now defunct Equal Opportunities Commission published in 2006 found that sexual harassment was most common when there were far more men than women and vice versa where one sex, typically men, hold the positions of power and junior roles are held by women, and where the leadership style is overly authoritarian or too laid back.
Just how prevalent a problem sexual harassment at work may be is hard to judge because under-reporting is high. But the commission’s research found that between 2001 and 2005 a successful sexual harassment case was brought each week and it was ranked among the top five issues callers rang the helpline about.
In a Community Care web poll, 52% of respondents said they had been sexually harassed. Ultimately, harassment is a power game, argues Finnegan. She says: “Abusers know exactly what they are doing. It is not the person in the postroom harassing the chief executive. All those involved are very aware of the hierarchy.”
For this reason many people who are sexually harassed may not complain because they fear reprisals and damage to their job prospects, especially as it is not uncommon for harassers to directly or indirectly threaten someone’s future within the organisation as a way of guaranteeing they keep quiet.
Other deterrents to speaking out felt by those who are being harassed often include concerns that they will not be taken seriously, lack of information about sexual harassment policies and lack of evidence.
Kremer says: “When you do an autopsy of a harassment case you will have approached someone for help, maybe a colleague, someone working in HR but they get no support. Then they do what’s known as pinballing, where they fly around trying to get help.”
Often a harasser will target several people at once, which is why it is best to seek out others to find if they are being subjected to similar behaviour. Kremer says that while policies are a good thing, such formal routes are “notoriously ineffective,” when it comes to dealing with harassment, which is why mediation is a good idea.
Typically, someone accused of sexual harassment will try to “laugh it off” or say there has been a misunderstanding, and attempting to get an apology is likely to fail. A “yellow card” system, whereby the person is warned about their conduct often successfully addresses the problem.
“The worst thing you can do is be silent because silence will be taken as consent,” he warns.
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This article appeared in the 29 May issue under the headline “Unwelcome attention”