Sticks and Stones may Break your Bones, but Sexual Harassment Leaves Scars.
Updated: Apr 29
Do you have any interest in seeing a grown person roll their eyes? Just tell them, “I do research and consulting on sexual harassment,” and you will see plenty of people doing ‘the eye roll like a pro' thing. I also have gotten an ear full of opinions over the years, such as “some people just can’t take a joke,” or “people make such a big deal out of nothing,” and, “it is a made up problem to give people like you a job.” My favorite? “that is stupid.”
In general, I find that most people believe that sexual harassment is not a big deal. They seem to think it is a victimless crime, or worse, they believe that the real victim is the person who is accused of being a sexual harasser. Part of the problem is that most of the scars from sexual harassment are invisible, and therefore easy to ignore.
To get people in the right mindset, the first thing I have to do when training or consulting is make sure they understand that sexual harassment is a big deal with big damage at every level.
The Target is Damaged
Maybe the most recognized harm is to the target of predatory sexual behavior. At the target level, sexual harassment causes job loss, income loss, and physiological diseases associated with stress (heart attack, heart failure, chronic migraines, etc). Sexual harassment is also associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Yep. People who have been targeted with sexual harassment can experience similar outcomes to people who have been in a war.
The Group/Team is Damaged
At the group level, the entire work group suffers when a person has been targeted. Here is a research study that provides a useful analysis of the damage that can occur to your work team when a member is targeted. For those of you who are interested in such things, the fiscal cost of sexual harassment on a team can run to thousands of dollars for every team member.
The Organization is Damaged
At the organizational level, the cost is also dramatic. While people usually worry most about the cost of litigation, the bigger worry should be the damage to the brand. Not only can organizations go out of business, but organizations with culturally woven sexual harassment are less productive, and less mission focused.
Stakeholders are Damaged
But what about the average person? Most of us are not being targeted at work, so why should we care? I am glad you asked. I want to share a story with you that was told to me by a study participant some years ago. This story continues to haunt me.
Anna was a surgical technologist at a large hospital. This is a story she shared with me when I asked her to tell me about sexual harassment she had seen or heard about. The following is from my book, Sexual Harassment in Organizational Culture: A Transformative Approach.
I had a [medical colleague] here. He was a very nice man. I always thought of him as a big teddy bear. And he was always nice and friendly to everybody. And one day I started working evenings, and there are very few people in surgery in the evening. And so you find yourself alone in hallways.
He was very large man. And um, he started getting touchy feely with me. And I thought, “I don’t like this. I don’t like this.” I was terrified and I didn’t say anything to him. I was scrubbing for a case and I couldn’t do anything. You know, your hands are supposed to be sterile and you can’t do anything.
And he came up behind me, put his arms around me, and I was just, “oh my gosh.” And he started kissing my neck. I turned and looked at the desk, and there were people sitting at the desk. I mean, they didn’t think anything of it. And I’m going [to the people at the desk] “excuse me,” you know, “hello.” Trying to do everything I could to get out of that situation, because I was terrified.
And I ended up just going into the room where he was going to be coming anyway. I went in there and did the surgery.
And later went to my sister-in-law and said, “What do I do?” I mean, this guy scared the piss out of me. And I’m going to be working evenings. He’s going to be there. What if he catches me down the hall where nobody’s at? He’s a large man, he could take me in a heartbeat.
Anna, like most women I have spoken to over the years, viewed herself as strong and tough. She was confident that if she was targeted she would respond swiftly and strongly to the behavior. When it happened to her she was caught by surprise, perhaps because the behavior had escalated over time and because she had made a decision to trust this “teddy bear” coworker. When her trust was violated, she experienced immediate and long-term fear that this man would hurt her and there was nothing she could do to stop him. Note her language. Anna was not just afraid. She was “terrified.”
What if. . .?
Now imagine that this is you. Raise your hands in the air and touch nothing. After all, you have just scrubbed in for surgery, which means that you are sterile and ready to work. Keep your hands up, no matter what happens. There is a vulnerability to being in this position. In fact, I suspect that most readers did not put their hands up, or only put them up part way. Why do you think that is?
So your hands are in the air and a large male assaults you and will not stop. He is grabbing your breasts, kissing your neck. Your heart starts beating faster. The physiological need for fight or flight sets in. You flee into the surgical room. You are terrified.
What happens to your body when you are terrified? For most people, the aftermath of terror is physical shaking. Let’s assume for a moment that this surgical technologist is shaking. She is about to assist with surgery.
What could go wrong?
Would you want to be the patient in that room, at that moment, with that surgical team?
How might this type of impact translate to other forms of organizations, such as schools or the military?
We tend to treat women as objects of suspicion. Let's stop doing that.
We need to accept that sexual harassment is a big problem with big consequences.
We need to take sexual harassment seriously.
We need to change organizational behavior.
We need to understand our organizational culture.
We need to recognize the hidden scars caused by sexual harassment.
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*If you are looking for an electronic version of the Sexual Harassment and Organizational Culture book, you can find one at Cognella publishing.