Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
She arrives at the meeting to present a report that she’s worked on for months. Within minutes he’s at her side, telling her she looks gorgeous today. He sits next to her and leans in close. She wants to change seats, but he is her boss, in charge of her compensation and career advancement; last time she rebuffed him he responded with profanity. When she checks her work email that evening, her heart sinks: he’s asked her yet again to go out for a drink.
The #MeToo movement has rightly focused on the physical intimidations and assaults that women have encountered in the workplace. Yet there are other forms of harassment on the job that involve little or no physical touch, like the scenario above, that can cause women emotional and psychological distress and damage to their careers.
Sexual harassment is less about sex than about the exercise of power: seeing the discomfort (or worse) of those he targets makes the harasser feel superior and in control. He’s not going to give up that power without a struggle: that’s why we’re now seeing so many attempts to discredit #MeToo and demean the women who are part of it.
President Donald Trump lamented at a recent rally in Montana that “we’re in the MeToo generation, so we have to be very gentle” when handling women, while the organizers of the Miss Massachusetts beauty pageant mocked the movement in a skit – prompting Maude Gorman, the current Miss Plymouth County and a survivor of sexual violence, to resign in protest.
And that’s why we should pay attention to a path-breaking new study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), which advances the concept of “gender harassment,” defining it as “behaviors that belittle women and make them feel they don’t belong.” The concept gives recognition to misconduct that is common throughout the workforce and the academy, but remains widely unreported and often not taken seriously by Title IX and human resources offices even when complaints are lodged. The report, based on large surveys conducted by two major university systems across 36 campuses, reveals an alarming prevalence of gender harassment, in situations that Wellesley College president Paula Johnson, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, says “the legal system alone is really just not adequate for addressing.”
The media covers many women who have endured physical sexual harassment and leave their place of employment, only to find they’re unable to find comparable jobs elsewhere or become “unhireable” in their previous line of work. We know less about what may be the more typical scenario, when the woman stays put out of fear, necessity, or as the result of any number of other difficult choices. Because less overt sexual aggressions remain a gray zone in the anti-harassment protocols and best practices developed by many employers, women who follow the recommended reporting channels can find that their experiences have been dismissed or challenged, leaving them exposed to retaliation or ostracized. Many women are left under the supervision of their harassers, even after they raise complaints.
As employers develop tools to deal with cases of physical assault, they should consider the broader category of gender harassment suggested by the NASEM. This means taking a hard look at how they might have protected aggressors who claim they were “just joking around,” their words and actions “misunderstood” by their accusers. It means being honest about how chains of complicity are forged that keep harassers in power, starting with senior managers or academic administrators who hire and promote men despite knowing about their improper behavior and then close ranks against female accusers to save their own reputations.
“Gender harassment” gives necessary language to a world of previously ill-defined and demeaning behaviors by men who don’t need physical contact to get their point across. It’s a world of encounters that begin with an appraisal of the woman’s attractiveness, even and perhaps especially when male colleagues are present. These are not innocuous compliments, but elements of a strategy of power. The man wants the woman (and sometimes others) to know exactly what she is to him: an object of desire. Rejecting his advances can have concrete consequences, like shrinking bonuses and lost professional opportunities, especially if the man is well protected by his superiors.
In situations where gender harassment is not taken seriously, women may attempt a female magic trick. Not the old stage routine of being sawed into pieces by a man and then popping up smiling, makeup and body parts intact (surely a metaphor for how our world wants women to deal with male violence), but the feat of staying on the job while keeping out of the pursuer’s path. Retreating from work opportunities and social networking occasions that would necessitate unwanted contact provides psychological relief from exposure to the harasser, but can have negative economic consequences. She may be passed over for lucrative assignments and promotions, while he advances up the ladder.
The concept of gender harassment gives a name to a realm of female workplace experience that has yet to be fully reckoned with. If more women see their experiences as having value and legitimacy, they may feel empowered to come forth and tell their stories, starting with two words whose power still resonates, whether mocked or not: #MeToo.