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These Arguments are Often Used Against Victims of Workplace Harassment. Male Allies Can Help.

These Arguments are Often Used Against Victims of Workplace Harassment. Male Allies Can Help.

The corporate world is making many strides in leadership and progression, yet sexual harassment is still rampant and a major external challenge negatively impacting women at work. According to TUC, one in two women and two in three LGBTQI+ workers experience sexual harassment in the workplace. The Trust Radius Women In Tech Report 2021 cites that 72% of women in tech have worked at a company where "bro culture" is pervasive.

Feeling safe is not a luxury automatically afforded to women, even in professions where you would least expect sexual harassers to get away, as substantiated in the Women Lawyers On Guard’s nationwide survey of sexual harassment in the legal profession.

If you wish to be ally and help combat this issue, you first need to avoid claiming false meritocracy or deny that sexual harassment can exist in your workplace. You can also strongly discourage the following arguments, commonly used to undermine and deflect from the main issue.

The "she asked for it" argument.

Questioning a woman’s of choice of clothes, her choice of route, telling her how to behave, mislaying the blame, and playing devil’s advocate are all forms of victim blaming that undermine the responsibility of the system to provide protection.

It feeds into the dangerous narrative that it’s up to the woman to keep herself safe from men — this wearing shift of responsibility and lack of ownership is aggravating for women. Moreover, it enables perpetrators to find excuses to justify their heinous crimes.

[Related: How to Deal with Sexist Humor at Work]

The "why did it take so long to report it" argument.

A common discrediting tactic is probing the delay in reporting a crime. But when an animal attacks (i.e. a dog bites a human), do people question why the victim didn’t immediately respond to that animal or show displeasure?

Most people have a fright or flight response. Many victims may freeze on the spot, then struggle with feelings of shame, disgust, and confusion that cloud their judgment. Most feel so disoriented by the violation that that they do not have the capacity to talk about the incident until much later on once they have processed what has happened.

Sometimes, the damage cuts deeper than shame or humiliation; victims can develop PTSD or other mental trauma that prevent them from coming forward. The negative psychological effects of repeated abuse are cumulative and extremely detrimental. And finally, women may be afraid to expose the incident for fear of personal and professional backlash.

The "#MeToo has made it difficult for men" argument.

A study suggests that men are now afraid to be alone with women in the room — so much so that some are even afraid to shake hands so they avoid contact all together. Ironically, the same research debunks the argument that men are confused about what exactly constitutes unacceptable behavior.

The study examined nineteen behaviors, including emailing sexual jokes to a subordinate, and asked respondents to classify each as harassment or socially acceptable behavior. The results showed that both genders essentially agreed on what entails harassment, and as Leanne Atwater, one of the study’s author’s notes:

If anything, women are more lenient in defining harassment.

So perhaps the reason why some men are angry is because they’ve been forced to re-evaluate questionable behavior normalized for far too long and reflect on power dynamics which they always took for granted.

[Related: Six Steps for Handling Gender-Based Psychological Violence at the Workplace]

The "not all men" argument.

Women are already aware that not all men are rapists, but when a woman walks alone in the street or navigates any public space, she wouldn’t necessarily know which type she will encounter — her natural instinct will automatically trigger a threat response if an unknown man starts walking next to her.

Also, consider this parallel argument: During COVID-19, the government advised everyone to stay home. Many people are sick and the virus is spreading fast. You wouldn't respond, "Yes, but not everyone is infected." Whether everyone is sick or just a few individuals, you must take precautions either way. So yes — not all men behave like that — yet enough of them do, which is why women are conditioned to be on guard all of the time.

On that note, Jackson Katz, a social researcher, asked men and women what they did on a daily basis to avoid being sexually assaulted. The results of the research, as shared on social media, evidenced a stark contrast between the response of men, who had nothing to bother about, and women, whose list of precautions could go on forever. This doesn’t mean that men never had any safety concerns at all; it only points out how the fear and threat of sexual assault is predominantly a women's issue.

The "but men are victims too" argument.

Recognizing that women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence does not deny that men and boys are also victims of sexual violence. The stigma and shame of male survivors is, unfortunately, exacerbated by toxic masculinity.

These men need their own space and activism. However, counter campaigns and retaliatory movements hardly help. When you draw comparisons or shift the primary focus of a pressing and grave campaign, you are neither healing nor driving positive change.

Claiming the issue is gender neutral only undermines the severity and impact that sexual harassment and abuse have on women’s everyday lives. Even worse, sexist men use this sentiment not to defend victimized men, but rather disregard a prevalent issue.

As an ally, it is important for you to do what is right for the victim rather than protecting the interests of the organization. Many HR departments are not supportive and focus on avoiding legal action at any cost. It is therefore all the more critical that you lend support, help victims channel their inner strength, and ensure confidentiality and trust. You may also suggest appointing a designated third party or victim’s advocate who is impartial and fair.

Training on acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, creating a sexual harassment policy in collaboration with HR and D&I consultants, and conducting exit interviews/surveys are some measures you can push for to alleviate harassment. Finally, reviewing policies and procedures to identify loopholes, establishing accountability, developing a proper complaint procedure, and pushing for a broader cultural change in the organization can help the tackle the issue head-on.

Know that your support can bring much-needed respite to victims and will be a welcome addition in spaces where women have been fighting on their own for a long time.

[Related: Nonprofits: It's Time to Protect Your Employees Over Your Bottom Line]


Hira Ali is an author, writer, speaker, and executive coach focused on women’s and ethnic leadership development. She is the Founder of Advancing Your Potential and International Women Empowerment Events and Co-Founder of Career Excel and The Grey Area. Contact her on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook. In 2019, she released her first book entitled Her Way to the Top: A Guide to Smashing the Glass Ceiling. Her second companion book — Her Allies: A Practical Toolkit to Help Men Lead through Advocacy — invites men to join the gender equality movement and is out now.

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