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  • Paula Koller-Alonso

How Far We’ve Come, How Far We’ll Go: The Evolution of Workplace Sexual Harassment

Updated: Mar 15

Remembering to recognise our milestones in combatting sexual harassment, so that our fight continues with energy and passion.


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“Basic differences between men and women in personal orientation to sexual behaviour explain the difference between men and women in attitudes towards sexual harassment” — Alison Konrad & Barbara Gutek

This statement might feel wrong to you. Maybe because it outlines inherent behavioural differences based on sex and gender. Maybe because it uses these divergences to differentiate a gendered view of sex. Maybe because it generates presumptions about gendered perceptions of sexual harassment.


And maybe that is because this statement was made 35 years ago. In 1986, the idea of sexual harassment was only just entering our vocabulary, albeit our working environment.


James Keyser/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

In 1979 Catharine MacKinnon,an American lawyer, published her book Sexual Harassment of Working Women, in which she created the Western legal basis for sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination. And it was not until the late 70s and early 80s, when the first sexual harassment cases were taken to court in the United States, that the conversation surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace became more prominent.


So when we look back at the discussion from 20, 30 years ago, there’s actually a lot that we can learn from how we have developed, evolved and most importantly, improved.

So let’s take a journey two, three decades back, and have a look at the discourse surrounding sexual harassment, what we have learned, what has changed. Not just to see how far we’ve come, but also to see how much we’ve come to understand what sexual harassment really is.


Who is harassed? Who harasses?

“The most common scenario is a female subordinate under the age of 34 being harassed by a male over the age of 35” — Karen Crain & Kenneth Heischmidt

When the fight against sexual harassment first came onto the scene, it was driven by women speaking up about unfair, sexist treatment in the workplace. Women were gaining more equality in the working environment, and were starting to speak out against discrimination based on sex.


But, one of the ways in which we have improved our understanding of sexual harassment, is our perception of the target vs. the harasser. That is to say, what is the general profile of the person who is harassed vs. the person harassing?


Because more and more, we are understanding that while the majority profile of the harassed still continues to be younger women, we also recognise that sexual harassment can happen to anyone.


Moreover, we know that minorities of any demographic group are actually at higher risk of being a target. That is to say, while young women might still be targeted in the largest number, the quantity is also extremely high for trans-people, homosexual and non-white employees.


Comic from Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, 1995

We have also come to understand that although sexual harassment is often about power relationships, especially between older men (usually superiors) and younger women (usually subordinates), power dynamics are not always at play in the incident.


Especially through the advent and continued innovation of cyberspace, and the transition to our online working environments, sexual harassment often takes place online. In these instances specifically, colleagues of any rank can perpetrate sexual harassment.


Why are we sexually harassed?

Society used to think that sexual harassment was black and white. That sexual harassment occurred because men and women have inherently different traits and behaviours. So when you place them both together in a working environment, it is likely to blow up:

“One of the most significant factors as to why sexual harassment occurs may be the fact that women and men often perceive the issue of sexual harassment differently. For men, it is usually strictly an issue of sexuality. For women, it is usually strictly an issue of power” — Karen Crain & Kenneth Heischmidt

In sexual harassment, there can be a power play involved. There can also sometimes be sexual intent behind the perpetration. However, there are two things that have changed since 1986.


Firstly, we no longer attribute certain behaviours to certain sexes. Well, we have come to the realisation that this type of divergence contributes to patriarchal misogyny. So we try to be aware of not separating our behaviour into two sex branches.


Rather, we have come to understand that sexual harassment has many different facets and can develop in different ways for different people. No matter their gender. And that splitting up sexual harassment perpetration into sex and gender does not allow us to combat it completely.


Quiz from: Opflow, Vol. 1, №8, 1995

Secondly, we also understand that sexual harassment does not have to be a singular incident involving two individuals. We know that sexual harassment can also unfold in a toxic working environment, in a sexist work culture, in a misogynistic work habitat.


It can be about power and sex, but it can also be about gender norms and stereotypes. It can be about a lack of diversity leading to male domination in the workplace. It can be about a group of people using derogatory terms based on gender. It can be about an environment in which jokes about female genitals are used.


Why don’t targets report?

“One feminine behaviour sometimes required by women in female-dominated jobs is to attract men Women in female-dominated occupations are therefore relatively unlikely to label sexual incidents at work as sexual harassment, since the role of sex object may be perceived to be part of the job” — Alison Konrad & Barbara Gutek

Usually, most targets of sexual harassment know they are being sexually harassed. Or at least that something isn’t right. Because if it feels wrong, it is wrong.


But whether the woman works in a female-dominated job, whether their job is to look aesthetically pleasing, whether their job is to care for men in any way. Targets know the line between customer service and sexual harassment.


This perception has substantially changed in the last two, three decades. It has especially changed since the beginning of the #MeToo movement in 2017, when mass amounts of women talked openly about sexual harassment at work, what it looks like, what it sounds like, what it feels like.

© PosterEnvy

Therefore, it is no longer that women are unlikely to label an incident as sexual harassment, just because they are working in a female-dominated job in which the “sex object” is part of customer service. It is more about the fact that many women do not feel safe, supported or secure in reporting the incident of sexual harassment when it occurs.


And that’s what we are aiming to change, and what we have improved in the last years. The shift in the conversation went from: why do we experience sexual harassment, to how can we eradicate sexual harassment? And that is a development we need to celebrate.


Our Achievements:

At its core, we have come to understand that sexual harassment is a lot broader and more complex than we initially thought. And that’s a really positive development. Because we need to ensure that anyone feeling sexually harassed at work — whether that is a boss, a black man, a homosexual woman, an older colleague or a non-binary individual — can speak up, and have their voice be validly heard.


Because sexual harassment is still so prominent in the workplace, and we recognise that we have a long way forward to eradicate it, we often focus on how we still have a lot of work ahead of us to defeat it.


But we should also have a think about how far we’ve come. How much has changed. How much has improved. Because if we only focus on our road ahead, without looking at the journey so far, it is easy to become disillusioned, exhausted or disheartened.


And we have to think about the milestones that we have achieved. The people who have fought for us to get here. The successes that have gotten us to improve our understanding of sexual harassment. Because without all of this, Metta Space would not even be here today.


Written By: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of Research & Development at Metta Space