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The New Wild West: Navigating Sexual Harassment in a Digital Era

How sexual harassment has changed in a time of technological advancement and development — but maybe not as much as we’d hope.


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My mother likes to define herself as a cowboy. She talks about her time as a corporate paralegal in New York City in the 1970s and 80s with complete admiration: her 90-hour work weeks, being called a car service so she could go home in the middle of major mergers so she could walk her dog and come back to work, and having a presence in the boy’s club of corporate America.


One story I remember hearing often when she reminisces amongst friends is the time there was a major merger going on and her company had to get around the lawyers to set up a meeting. The partners were debating the best way to book this meeting until one of them said “Just put Mary on and we will have the meeting in no time. Face it, Mary gives great phone”.


There is an obvious uncomfortable notion about the connection of your mother being alluded to as a phone sex operator by her bosses. As her friends would laugh and she’d look at them with a face of approval, nodding and laughing as if almost to say, it is true. But that story never sat right with me, especially when it felt like she was in agreement that it was okay to be talked about in this way.


She still doesn’t get why this story doesn’t sit right with me. Although my mom felt like she was one of the “cowboys”, she wasn’t unaffected by the toxicity that many women in the workplace face. For me, the uncomfortableness is about the blasé joke nature despite this, for me seemingly obvious, prevalent sexual harassment, and the idea that my mom went with it. When I would try and dig deeper about this harassment layer, she would say that “no one raped her” so she never even experienced sexual harassment.



Credit: James Keyser/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images
Catharine MacKinnon, the original silence breaker

I think for my mom and a lot of her friends, they only know sexual harassment in the physical aspect, although many women now know it goes so much deeper than that. The term sexual harassment only really began to gain traction following a legal scholar, Catharine MacKinion who argued that workplace harassment constituted sexual discrimination, which in the late 70s was considered illegal in the U.S. Following the scandal surrounding Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and his former assistant Anita Hill, many businesses began worrying about their own legal and public relations appearances surrounding sexual harassment.


Yet, despite nearly 30 years of increased harassment training and grievance procedures, 60% of women still say they have been harassed at work and this percentage has stayed consistent since the 1980s, since the time my mom was a cowboy.


The definition of sexual harassment hasn’t changed much since the 1980s either. Its current definition is that it is a “type of harassment that involves the use of explicit or implicit sexual overtones, including the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favours”. Unsurpsingly though, the retaliation for reporting sexual harassment can often lead to assault, taunting, demotion, or ultimately being fired.


Yet, as the world has gone through this rapid shift to a remote working environment, there has been no update as to how sexual harassment can apply to the telecommuting world. We would think that sexual harassment claims would decrease as the world shifted online, but for many the abuse has mutated, much like this virus.


Operating online can embolden people to act in ways that they maybe never would have in a face-to-face setting. Children have experienced this with the surge of cyberbullying, as if somehow putting a screen in front of you changes how you think you can behave. There is a dissociation that occurs once you log on.


As the world shifted to their respective work-from-home platform, I had a friend message me about a tricky situation she felt she was in. She said that her coworker would message her privately during zoom meetings, asking about what she had dreamt about or commenting on silly things that the presenters had said. She said she knew that if they were face-to-face, they would not have this kind of “relationship” but she also felt that it was too small to bring up to anyone.


It’s harmless. But the hostile environment this behaviour creates is enough to add a new pressure to the already tense pandemic. Many companies are reporting that sexual harassment claims are increasing even with the working enviornment no longer being in a physical, shared space.


Some even believe that it is because women finally feel safe to come forward about their experiences without fear of retaliation.


I hope one day to be the cowboy my mom was, and still is. However, I also hope to be one in a working environment in which I feel safe and protected. While different generations grapple with the changing definition and operationalisation of sexual harassment in the workplace, at least there is a common thread of finding how to create safer environments for all.

Written by: Apollina “Polly” Kyle, Research Ambassador at Metta Space

Edited by: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of Research & Development at Metta Space

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