Bora at A Blog Around the Clock alerted me to an article in Science Daily titled Power And Sexual Harassment — Men And Women See Things Differently.
Issues of power, workplace culture and the interpretation of verbal and non-verbal communication associated with sexual harassment were the focus of a study by Debbie Dougherty, assistant professor of communication in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Working with a large healthcare organization in the Midwest, Dougherty examined the question: why does sexual harassment occur?
Dougherty’s findings show that men and women think differently about sexual harassment. While both men and women understand sexual harassment to be about power, men associate power with position, and assume that only individuals in formal positions of power over someone can sexually harass that person. On the other hand,
Women view power in a more complex manner; formal authority is but one dimension in male-dominated workplaces. Power to women is a negotiated process between the harasser and harassed. Dougherty said women often perceive all members of an organization as possible harassers – thinking it can be initiated by any person who is perceived as having power.
Here I’m thinking of the young men in the study by Margolis, Fisher & Miller who taunted their female classmates about only getting into computer science because they were girls. The male classmates did not have formal authority over females, but they were capable of engaging in sexually harassing behavior and creating a hostile learning environment.
But the Dougherty study may just be looking at comments and behaviors of an explicitly sexual nature. Even so, one need not be in a positon of formal power to engage in harassing behavior. Sexually explicit remarks, jokes, innuendo, and behavior serve to remind women that they are women and not professionals to be taken seriously. This behavior functions, as I said in my previous post, to demarcate the work environment as male territory and define women as interlopers on male turf. It’s like tomcats spraying to mark their territory.
Men may think that their sexual comments don’t qualify as sexual harassment if they are not in formal positions of authority over the women they are speaking to. But they must surely know, somewhere inside, that their behavior is not the kind of collegial behavior one engages in with an equal. Even if they are not consciously aware of exercising the power that comes with their male privilege, they act as they do because they have the authority over women that comes just from being male in a patriarchal society. Dougherty says her study shows how important sexual harassment training is, and I agree with her, if only to make it impossible for men to say they didn’t know it was wrong to piss on other human beings.