The #MeToo campaign of people posting on social media their stories of sexual harassment and abuse is officially viral and is continuing to bring up a wide swath of reactions. The campaign was started by actress Alyssa Milano who, following the multiple allegations against American film producer Harvey Weinstein for sexual harassment and abuse, encouraged those who have experienced sexual abuse and harassment to post their own stories with the hashtag #Me Too on social media. So far thousands of women (and some men) have told their stories of sexual harassment and abuse.
There have been critics of the #MeToo campaign who say that women are telling stories of incidents where boundaries have been overstepped (such as the woman who was asked out for a date by a colleague and felt very uncomfortable about it) and that such stories actually devalue the claims of those who have experienced truly traumatic harassment and abuse. As a result, the definition of what is and isn’t sexual harassment has come under scrutiny.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines sexual harassment as, “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate (such as an employee or student).”
The EEOC (US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) has defined it as, “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”
It is clear that the allegations against Weinstein would clearly constitute sexual abuse and harassment. What is not so clear is cases where the behavior is less obvious. In the definitions, the important word is “unwelcome,” and unwelcome is a highly subjective term. Each person will react to a comment or even a touch differently. To one woman a comment on her new hairstyle will be flattering, to another inappropriate. A hug between colleagues at the end of a long project may be, to some, natural and to another a serious invasion of privacy.
Cultural values also impinge in this area. In Israel, a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) woman would not shake a man’s hand, believing that such contact was inappropriate, whereas in other sectors a pool party would be deemed an appropriate social event. Israeli male cultural influences mean that sexual harassment is widespread in Israel. Although it is hard to find numbers for workplace harassment, indications can be found in the surveys conducted in the Israeli army.
In 2017 a study showed that one in six women in the army say they have been sexually harassed, with 60% of women soldiers and officers reporting a sexualized atmosphere where the telling of sexually-themed jokes and stories is commonplace.
Legislating for such incidents is hard, and while sexual harassment has been addressed via legislation since 1998 and many companies do have sexual harassment procedures, these are rarely used.
The main reason formal procedures are rarely used is twofold. Firstly, in the case of overstepping boundaries, the formal procedures can appear too heavy handed to the victim. While the victim may want the harassers to stop making inappropriate jokes, she (or he) may not want the harassers to “get into trouble over it.”
The second and more common reason is that the victim fears repercussions if she/ he is seen as “too sensitive” or “not part of the team,” or that such conversation or behavior is seen as normal office banter or office pranks.
It must be clear that where there is a serious case of sexual harassment (and it is up to the individual to decide what is classed as serious), formal procedures should be initiated and, where relevant, reported to the right authorities. Where there are less serious incidents it may be that the victim can take matters into their own hands, or use an informal procedure within the company. Education and training are the key; many habitual harassers, if asked, don’t actually understand the effect they are having on people.
Simply telling people not to say or do certain things, without explanation, is rarely effectual.
So how do you deal with inappropriate behavior in the workplace? Stop it
As with all forms of harassment and abuse, it is important to speak out and say that you are not comfortable with what is being said or done. This can be as simple as “please don’t say or do that, I’m not comfortable with it.” This can in many cases be enough. However, many times when speaking out, to soften the message victims will reduce the effectiveness of the statement in one of four ways: a) With a long explanation – there should be a time for explanations, but usually the harasser will not be open to hearing them at the time of telling him/ her that their behavior is inappropriate.
b) Apologetically – apologizing for asking for inappropriate behavior to stop can weaken the complaint.
c) In a joking fashion – when the victim protests to the harassment in a more jokey manner, the harasser may feel that it is all part of the office banter that he/ she has initiated and not take the complaint seriously.
d) With a retaliating remark – where a comment is made, a retaliating comment may be made back with the hope that the harasser, when given a “dose of their own medicine,” may realize what they are doing. This rarely works and usually just continues a cycle albeit with very passive aggressive undertones with the harasser often seeing this as confirmation that this is acceptable workplace behavior.
Clear and direct language is best.Discuss it
After asking the harasser to stop, it could be a good idea to wait a couple of hours, or a day, and then ask the harasser if they could give you five minutes of their time and discuss the incident with them. Instead of launching into how the action or comment made you feel, you could ask the harasser what was the intention of the action, and then explain how the intention (if it was a joke or just office banter) was not successful, and how it actually made you feel.
This is the time to say that what was said or done made you feel uncomfortable and why. In this way, the harasser may be able to take a moment and realize the effect of his/her actions. Away from the immediate situation, the harasser may be in a better position to receive what is being said.
One common response of the harassers is that you (the victim) are particularly sensitive and this is not a problem with other women/co-workers etc. Trying to fight this battle is a losing one. In explanation it can be made clear that everyone is different with different levels of boundaries and for you, this behavior is not ok.Report it
If the response you receive from the harasser is negative or the behavior continues, do report it through the company’s formal procedures. Take notes of the timing and details of the incidents as you may need them in any formal hearing.
Companies have an obligation to take these complaints seriously and in the extreme case of dismissal or where you leave because of such behaviors, you will need records.
#MeToo has been a powerful campaign of women raising their voices, but to turn it from a social-media campaign to real change, people need to speak up in the workplace and be supported when they do.
The author qualified as a lawyer in the UK and then retrained as a licensed mediator both in England and in Israel. She currently resides in Jerusalem, where she has a mediation practice specializing in mediation for English speakers.