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When men experience harassment

“It’s not about sex; it’s about power and control”.

Photo: Sander vanderWel via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Photo: Sander vanderWel via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Over the past few years, the multiplicity of sexual allegations in Hollywood as well as organisations such as Oxfam Novib, or even within the United Nations System, have generated the following perception: the rates of sexual harassment in the workplace seem to be lower for men than for women. Without belittling the facts and figures that confirm the latter, the pressing question is: what happens when men are harassed in the workplace? In the following article, three questions are put to the Dutch-born empirical expert and author, Karin Bosman.

TG: Researchers, such as Jennifer Berdahl, professor at the University of British Columbia, argue that men in the workplace are mostly targeted for not being masculine enough or for their gender identity. She furthermore concludes that men are more likely to experience male-to-male as opposed to female-to-male harassment. Do you support these findings?

“The cumbersome aspect of comparable research is that respondents often find it hard to share the impact or even the harassment that occurred. Questions on sexual workplace harassment can be very confronting next to the fact that we all experience harassment differently. From my daily experience as an advisor, I know that for men it’s tough to admit that they have fallen victim to female-to-male harassment.

For instance, in one case I supported a man that had been harassed by three female colleagues. He was frightened to speak out because the women involved threatened to revert the situation and accuse him instead. Likewise, he was afraid to tell his wife out of fear that she might have thought that he had initiated all this. He, finally, tried to share his agony with friends but was laughed at with the message that he must have been in heaven while harassed by three women.

Both men and women are often uninformed about what sexual workplace harassment is. It’s not about sex; it’s about power and control. So, my point is that while research has an obvious raison d’etre, we should also realise that, in some instances, data could be compromised by what victims allow themselves to admit and share. For that matter, although the global gender gap is still an issue, at present there are more cases of highly positioned women that abuse power by, amongst other things, harassing men”.

Although the global gender gap is still an issue, at present there are more cases of highly positioned women that abuse power by, amongst other things, harassing men”

TG: In countries like India and Malaysia, politicians have been advocating for figures, concerning men who have been through sexual abuse and harassment, not to be downplayed. Based on what you have heard and seen during your workshops worldwide, do relevant company policies assert the rights of men as well?

“In my experience, legal frameworks in organisations are regularly not in place and in case they are, they are neither well implemented nor explained in readily understandable language. Creating awareness on this topic is no easy task. Issues, like management preferring umbrella branding or the use of wording that tone the situation down, are often the case. Since 76% of harassment in organisations arise from the actions of superiors and managers, this ‘trend’ is alarming indeed. Employees are not always aware of the existence of harassment policies or have no trust in a company’s legal avenues. It’s hard for most people to file a complaint, for being uncertain about the consequences hereof. Besides shame and humiliation, fear of not being taken seriously, of losing one’s job or being denied a promotion are only a few reasons not to come forward. Hence, comparable policies shall always be fine-tuned and reflect the fact that harassment comes in all shapes and sizes. In order to break a taboo like sexual harassment, organisations need to take a clear stance against sexual harassment, on behalf of both men and women”.

In order to break a taboo like sexual harassment, organisations need to take a clear stance against sexual harassment, on behalf of both men and women”.

TG: Do you concur with those critics that utter that recent movements, such as #MeToo, have been gendered and, as such, have left male victims behind?

“In my opinion, similar discussions detract from the achievements that have been accomplished thanks to #MeToo. The rationale behind mostly women having emerged within these movements is simply that for decades women have been excluded, harassed and assaulted at home, on the street, in public places and at work. As far as I’m concerned, these movements don’t go by the name ‘men-don’t-experience-sexual-harassment’. On a global scale, it is becoming increasingly common for male victims to step forward. The next step would be for even more men to join forces and share their narratives within these movements and on other platforms. At the end of the day, no matter what gender one identifies with, sexual harassment makes no differentiation”.

Author’s Note

Having endured sexual harassment in the workplace, Karin Bosman is the founder of About Workplace Harassment. She provides advice and workshops on job-related sexual harassment around the world and is the author of the publication Spitting on Hans’ Tosti. She is based in the Netherlands.

© Karin Bosman.


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