Sexual harrasment, slashdot, and you
August 4, 2007 11:15 PM   Subscribe

I was reading a slashdot article dealing with sexual harassment a while back, and in the comments there were lots of people talking about how they hate working with women because of the potential for accusations, complete with lots of horror stories about guys who were fired/taken to court/etc for innocuous comments or situations. I have to think that a lot of that was exaggeration for effect, but it makes me wonder: What's the reality like in the US?

The question's stuck with me especially as I'm a murse and outnumbered 15-1 by women at work, so when the talk gets risque I've never felt even the slightest bit worried about anyone complaining about me being inappropriate -- or if they were going to complain they'd say it to my face instead of complaining to a higher-up. Some of the give and takes that I have with the women I work with sound like the kind of thing that would label me a sex offender and land me prison time, if I worked in some of the offices the slashdot readers were purporting to work in.
posted by Silentgoldfish to Work & Money (39 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

It might be that the people who actually sexually harass people just have no idea what they are actually saying is all that insulting/abusive. A more sensitive person might only joke about such things, and in an appropriate environment. Whereas the person who says abusive/hurtful things is actually saying those sorts of things while being serious, or is joking, but in an inappropriate way.

There was a little situation where I work where someone (person A) did some small thing that someone else (person B) thought was inappropriate, but A didn't think it was that big of a deal. The situation: A slapped/spanked B on the ass, and thought it was OK. Person B was like "please don't do that", and then A was all suprised/shocked/embarrased about being called out. Person A had been to enough management training sessions to know that that sort of thing was not appropriate though. No-one was sent to jail or wrote up.
posted by philomathoholic at 11:33 PM on August 4, 2007

I don't know how to answer your question but I guess I can offer an anecdote: A friend of mine is a very attractive young female at a well-known computer animation company. As a technically proficient animator, she works with 95% male nerds. She was telling me that frequently second-hand comments made about her physique and bust-size will "get back to her" from sympathetic coworkers (despite her not wanting to know such things.) She also believes she has to work harder to get promoted because she is a woman and is seen as an inferior engineer by her uppers. She doesn't complain about any of this, and indeed is not that bothered by the comments when I pressed her. She concedes that it is the "reality of working with a talented albeit socially inept cohort." I find this very, very sad.
posted by dendrite at 11:43 PM on August 4, 2007

Slashdot is heavily populated by the cohort dendrite's friend works with. So take that into account.
posted by halonine at 11:54 PM on August 4, 2007

I think the people who tend to complain/fear being fired for sexual harassment are the people who work in male-dominated fields and worry about not being able to get away with it any more. I have never met anyone who was fired for sexual harassment, the only sexual harassment case I heard was in my office where an employee got a sharp reprimand for making sexual comments about a client in front of our boss. Yet it seems that every young guy I know has 2-3 anecdotes about some other guy who got fired for something innocuous.

I have a feeling that "guy" was an episode of Drew Carey they saw ten years ago.
posted by SassHat at 12:23 AM on August 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

She concedes that it is the "reality of working with a talented albeit socially inept cohort."

Probably not, I've never had a job where at least one male coworker didn't make a similar comment at some point or another. Its so common as to be unremarkable. Although guys? the object of your attention always finds out what you've said. Usually because one of your buddies snitches in order to try and impress her or to make trouble for you, like dendrites friend's colleagues.

While I'm sure there are people who are falsely accused out there, all the people I know who've pursued a sexual harrassment complaint had a very good reason for it. It's a PITA, stressful, usually results in you leaving your job and that record makes it hard for you ever to be hired anywhere else. It also costs a great deal of money if you get your own lawyer. Not something to be undertaken lightly.
posted by fshgrl at 12:27 AM on August 5, 2007

SassHat, I know men and women who have been fired for sexual harassment. In all the cases with which I've been personally acquainted, the party who ended up jobless thought it was harmless flirtation (or just woman-to-woman joking in a friendly manner--in that case there wasn't even direct flirtation but a comment that included sexual content), while the other person saw it quite differently.

I'm working in a friendly, somewhat touchy environment now, and have to get over being afraid to hug someone in a professional environment because of those cases. I've never been sexually harassed nor accused of sexual harassment, but I can't help being concerned about the culture that leads to those accusations.
posted by Cricket at 12:33 AM on August 5, 2007

Yeah, I think there's a heavy demographic slant to the Slashdot thing.

This is my personal obsevation - a lot of the instances I've seen have broadly followed this pattern - there's a really over the top inappropriate climate at a workplace where many people are saying and doing things that really aren't ok. Some people feel really uncomfortable, and it's very likely that these two groups of people overlap a bit. Then one person is at the end of their tether with the atmosphere, and one other person says or does something that goes further than usual, and the first person makes a complaint.

It's tough because I think people tend not to speak up in the early stages of a problem, hoping it will go away, but then others think 'why did you go along with it and not say something earlier?' There's a lot of pressure to go along with a shitty workplace culture. The other complication I've seen is that I think women (or anyone else who complains, because it isn't just a woman vs man thing) sometimes make a complaint against someone who's bad, but not the worst, and who might be a lower status person than the main offender(s). So I can understand a level of discomfort and maybe resentment from men who don't really get it, but I also think there's a huge component of 'Who understands those touchy bitches man?'.

Personal anecdote - I'm a union organizer, and I'm currently working with a workplace of about 600 people. Most of them are janitors, but others have degree-type jobs in a semi-creative field. I know of six current instances or accusations of harassment, three of which have been brought up to management. Three of them are women in the creative workplace who have been pretty crudely propositioned by the same man, only one complained, and that case has been 'under investigation' for several weeks. In the mean time she still has to work with him and someone has anonymously posted a threatening cartoon about workplace stalking on the fridge. Of the other three (in the janitor section), one is a woman who says she has had rumors spread about her for a long time by the same man who also follows her and makes comments to her. She feels management won't take her seriously. The other (two) are an elderly man who feels that a woman who accused him of harassment did it preemptively, and that she is the one who has been harassing him - that case is new and being investigated.

I know there are many, many more people who feel uncomfortable with the atmosphere at work; this week I saw an older woman yell at a younger man for using some pretty awful sexual language in the office and he laughed it off and yelled back until she shut up. Is that harassment? I don't think either of the people in the situation would think so, but they were both pissed at what happened, and they had very different expectations of a workplace.

My own experience as a woman worker is many years of feeling uncomfortable (and by extension excluded) around men who don't even get why there would be a problem. I've tried to shrug it off, laugh it off, ignore it, or snap at the person making the comment or joke. I've worked in a lot of different industries, office, the field, and factories; offices were by far the worst. I've once gone to a manager about a problem, and that was when new information about a drug problem and violence cast a guy's sexual comments in a new light.

So that's my take on it.
posted by crabintheocean at 12:53 AM on August 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Apart from the nerdy, socially-inept male, there's also another demographic, at least in the UK, but I've also come across Americans who show similar behaviour. I'm sorry if this answer is anecdotal, but I need to illustrate the point I want to make.

My job involves complaint-handling in an ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) scheme in the financial services industry, and in the last 7 or 8 years I've handled thousands of complaints (not exclusively about sexual harassment - although there have been some - but bear with me ...)

The more I do of this type of work the more I see 'profiles' of complainants - I can usually guess from a first reading of a complaint file if the complainant fits one of the profiles - confused old person, vexatious complainant, chancer, etc. And this isn't just me speaking, there've been studies (.doc) carried out by psychiatrists of complainant profiles.

And one of those profiles is the single woman, usually 35+, living alone, often working in a clerical or administrative job, and who Takes Offence At Everything.

And I mean everything. Their complaints usually don't involve a major screw up by their bank, but are focussed instead on a huge number of trivial things, such as having to queue in a bank for 20 minutes in their lunch hour, thus forcing them to take 'an inappropriate lunch break', or the cashier calling them 'Miss' instead of 'Ms'.

One woman I recall in particular made an enquiry to her bank about a mortgage and was sent a letter saying (paraphrased) "regarding your recent mortgage application, we're sorry, but your earnings aren't high enough to allow us to lend you what you want to borrow. The maximum we could lend you on your current earnings is £x". Her complaint to me was that she had been 'accused' of applying for a mortgage when all she did was enquire, and that the bank complained about her salary. So you get the picture ...

These women always also complain about harassment from male bank staff, which is, in every case, unfounded and unjustified. A quick search of the law reports for the Industrial Tribunals often brings up a report of a (failed) claim by the same person against a previous employer for sexual harassment.

So, whilst I'm not denying that sexual harassment in the workplace exists, it also has to be recognised that there are women who, for some reason, see harassment and offence-causing in what for most people would be just normal day-to-day interaction.
posted by essexjan at 1:50 AM on August 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

In my years mostly lurking at slashdot, I have indeed noticed a strong slant in many of the comments on articles with gender involved, mostly in the form of "Well obviously women don't do [male-dominated technical field] because they're just inherently not interested." There are very many posters who, uh, just don't get it with regard to women, and it saddens me whenever their ridiculous comments are modded as insightful. Take any comments on gender-related topics with many grains of salt.

I don't have any actual, personal anecdotes about sexual harassment in the workplace, though.
posted by liesbyomission at 1:51 AM on August 5, 2007

I don't know if it is something inherent in the medical field, but at nearly every veterinary hospital my wife has worked at, the level of sexual innuendo and humor has been extremely high. Usually it is good natured and accepted by all parties, but sometimes it is a bit creepy.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:01 AM on August 5, 2007

I would think that it would be very difficult to come up with any accurate assessment of the "reality" of the US work environment. There is so much variety (economically, socially, culturally) across the different areas of the US.

Having said that.. I've worked in a variety of offices, from corporate environments where it was expected that your daily behavior would be completely "politically correct" (which made me very uptight because I'm a pretty casual person by nature).. to other environments (like the one I currently work in) where pretty much anything goes (and even expected).

I think the bottom line is it depends on what industry you are in.. AND.. the company atmosphere... AND what type of coworkers you have. Having been in all those different environments,.. I have to say.. I will never take a "suit" job again. (even if it means being poor my entire life)..
posted by jmnugent at 4:41 AM on August 5, 2007

While not denying what essexjan and others have said, namely that there are women who complain about totally trivial issues (and the same could, of course, be said about complaints about racism), I am surprised that there is not a general recognition about how badly women are still treated in the workplace. For example, a recent article in the Washington Post showed that not only do women get lower pay raises than men but when they ask for them they are far more likely to be penalized for asking. This culture is, I believe, pervasive.

I used to be the equivalent of the union head in a major international organization, which you gave all heard of. I frequently attended meetings with all of the senior staff (around 50, of which 6-7 women). At one such meeting, on the issue of sexual harassment, one of the women stood up and said that every woman in the room had been a victim of sexual harassment at least once in her career in that organization.

Afterwards, I was talking with several of the men (I am male) and all felt that she had been massively exaggerating. Sadly, she had not. I saw only the most egregious cases and I can tell you that there were numerous males, all highly intelligent, highly educated, highly paid, used to working with women for most of their professional lives, who felt that they were inherently superior to all women and treated the women accordingly, whether in off-color remarks, blatant harassment or pay and conditions. Sadly, it was women managers who often discriminated most as regards pay and conditions (I made it to the top the hard way, why can't she?)

So yes, Slashdot may be right but it is only a small part of the story.
posted by TheRaven at 4:42 AM on August 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

as I'm a murse and outnumbered 15-1 by women at work.

Well that's a different situation. The women don't feel threatened because they so clearly outnumber you.

In a male dominated office, or even 50-50, most men are at least cautious about their interactions with female co-workers until they can figure out whether she's ok or is trouble.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:36 AM on August 5, 2007

as I'm a murse and outnumbered 15-1 by women at work. ... Some of the give and takes that I have with the women I work with sound like the kind of thing that would label me a sex offender and land me prison time

I certainly hope none of the patients you work with have to hear any of these verbal exchanges!
posted by Carol Anne at 5:51 AM on August 5, 2007

from what I hear (my mother has been a floor nurse for 20+ years) nurses have a rather.. blunt approach to things and that kind of humor is pretty typical

my sense personally is that the sexist attitudes at my workplace, and they are definitely there, are a lot more subtle than harassment. it wasn't easy to realize that certain unspoken rules applied to me that didn't apply to my male colleagues. a woman gets angry or shows frustration for totally legitimate reasons and she is crazy; a guy does it and he gets things done. and there are these buddy-buddy sort of frat boy relationships among the guy managers, which I'm sure the female managers don't have seeing as how there are so very, very few of them.
posted by citron at 8:08 AM on August 5, 2007

I can give you four personal anecdotes. The first was a complaint leveled at me by a young woman whom I could not stand and avoided talking to whenever possible. I'm tall, she was a short close-stander. Apparently, when you combine these two and make eye contact, like any polite person would, it looks like you're chest-staring (something I just don't do). And, oh yeah, she thought I was "creepy." The person who handled the complaint knew that it was bogus but it still had to be dealt with in any case. So, a note in my file all due to what was no more than spectral evidence in a witchcraft case.

The second was an accusation of sexual harassment as part of a coordinated effort to sue the owner of the business I was at, then take over said business. When the first accuser failed to make things work, a second one appeared. This also failed. Amusingly, the second accuser was so terribly traumatized by the experience that she ended up dating the owner years later. It eventually came out that the original accuser had been slurping out company funds for personal use and had a long pattern of latching onto small, falterning businesses, then taking them over and draining them dry. The original accuser, interestingly, though my boss, had no problem hitting on me, both verbally and by touch.

One about which I am less sure is a guy who was drummed out of a job by someone who had taken a dislike to him; she has since been forced to leave. He was someone who didn't have a lot of filters; what he thought came right out of his mouth. He might have said all kinds of things, including sexual topics, but the word harassment implies a campaign of maliciousness that, privately, everyone doubted until it was too late.

A fourth situation involved someone in a position of privilege coming onto and touching a client. This occurred after I had left the business, but I knew he had some, ah, interests in clients that seemed to go beyond the professional. This accusation I believed, and upon digging up the transcripts later, said, "Yeah, that's him all over."

I've also seen a false rape accusation, but that's a bit beyond the scope of the discussion. I used to be more sympathetic, but I have since reverted to "innocent until proven guilty," and require more evidence than a pointing finger and an expression of outrage. Three to one. I know, the plural of anecdote is not data. In any case, I now studiously avoid being alone in an office with women in particular, whenever possible. I avoid direct eye contact now, too. If you were me, would you do anything else?
posted by adipocere at 8:14 AM on August 5, 2007

Three points:

1) The Slashdot crowd is, well, nerdy ("news for nerds," etc.), and most nerds (myself included) are very self-conscious about not being able to pick up on social cues. (Whether that self-consciousness is justified varies.) Since a lot of unintentional sexual harassment seems rooted in misreading social situations, such folks can easily see themselves being accused based on an misunderstanding.

2) Nerds don't like logical inconsistency, and both the letter and the application of sexual-harassment law and policies tends to be filled with gray areas. Keeping to the letter of laws and policies would be both difficult and extremely isolating in most workplaces.

3) In the US, employers generally can't talk about the reasons a person was fired, which makes it easy for someone who was fired with clear-cut cause to claim it was because of one borderline-dirty joke.
posted by backupjesus at 8:27 AM on August 5, 2007

Response by poster: I certainly hope none of the patients you work with have to hear any of these verbal exchanges!

Are you kidding? They're usually the instigators of far worse stuff than we say -- being occasionally groped is just about part of the job, and I've been very blatantly hit on by more than a few narcotized women. Shame it doesn't happen near that often with sober people! Still, we're pretty tame all things considered. It's just the slashdot posts were going on about stuff that was as innocuous as our workplace banter.

Thanks for all the replies. There's so many good ones that I can't flag any particular one as a favorite.
posted by Silentgoldfish at 9:33 AM on August 5, 2007

I'm going to go one step further than others here: I think slashdot is full of a lot of outright misogyny that comes out in a really nasty way every time any sort of issue involving women comes up. Posts about various efforts to get young women involved in the tech industry, no matter how innocuous, inevitably result in a long series of "women don't do tech because their feminine natures do not accommodate it" and similar claptrap, frequently modded up to +4 or higher. I actually had to stop reading it because my faith in geek humanity plummets so far every time I come across one of those threads. I would bet may of those guys don't want to work with women not because of the threat of sexual harassment but because they simultaneously loathe and fear women. Of course, instead of saying "my masculinity is threatened every time a woman is better at my job than I am" they cry about how they are so unfairly treated, in this case by the very threat of sexual harassment lawsuits.
Anyway, as a woman working in the male-dominated area of tech, I have never known anyone accused of sexual harassment.
posted by ch1x0r at 10:35 AM on August 5, 2007 [5 favorites]

In a male dominated office, or even 50-50, most men are at least cautious about their interactions with female co-workers until they can figure out whether she's ok or is trouble.

Right, because uncomfortable with sex being brought into the workplace = "trouble".
posted by crabintheocean at 10:46 AM on August 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've been in a lot of workplaces where sexism — not just jokes about sex, but the honest belief that women were inferior beings whose only real job was to get men off, and who certainly didn't belong at work — fell into the same category as farts. They were both things to keep quiet about when clients were around, and it was acknowledged that a few people "couldn't take a joke" about either, but between friends they were both fair game for conversation.

I have a feeling it's a side effect of the way we talk about sexism. A common response to a sexist remark is to say that it's "offensive" — as if the only way sexism could harm someone is if they heard about it and got offended. And that puts it in the same category as, oh, farts and screwing and politics and religion and all the other normal, healthy things that we don't talk about in polite company for fear of stepping on someone's toes. I think a lot of people have embraced the idea that sexism is offensive — literally offensive, offensive as a topic of conversation the way that lesbianism or evolution might be at your great-aunt's birthday party — without taking in the fact that it's also wrong.

So this is still anecdotal, but that's what I always think about when I hear these complaints about unfair harrassment claims. I suspect a lot of them come from misunderstanding the real problem: thinking so-and-so was fired for the moral equivalent of farting in church, not for being an asshole with a misogynistic agenda the company couldn't support.

(For what it's worth, I think your question shows a little of the same confusion I've seen in so many co-workers. Sexual harrassment doesn't just mean "telling jokes about sex." It means, at the very least, that you're using the jokes as a weapon, to intimidate someone or make them feel unwelcome. Doesn't sound like you're doing much of that at the hospital.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:47 AM on August 5, 2007 [16 favorites]

This is such a well-balanced, polite discussion about a potential mind-field of a subject, so a hearty (platonic) pat on the back is due to all involved.

But most of the times I've discussed this (and to some extend in the OP's question), I think people WAY over-simplify a very complex topic. This is understandable. People who have been harassed and people who have been accused will have axes to grind. People with friends who have been accused or harassed will have similar axes. I don't blame any of them, and none of them are exactly wrong. They just don't tend to have the objectivity to see how tangled and nuanced the situation is.

Consider the following:

-- Men have, throughout history, harassed women. Not all men, of course, but my point is that harassment is nothing new. Alas, it's part of the human condition, and no amount fof sensitivity training will make it totally vanish (though the situation can improve). So anyone who claims that women aren't harassed or that all harassment claims are bogus is wrong.

-- For various reasons, some people like dominating other people. In a litigious society, where accusing someone of sexual harassment can get them in trouble, of course some women will wrongfully accuse men of harassment. (And vice versa.)

If those were the only dynamics, the situation would already be astoundingly complex. But there's more...

-- "Sexual harassment" is a fuzzy term. One person's banter is another person's outrage.

-- Men and women -- since the dawn of the human race -- flirt and court. People sometimes meet their girlfriends/boyfriends/spouses in the workplace. Of course there's a difference between harassment and respectful flirtation, but in the heat of the moment, not everyone is the best judge of what's appropriate, signals get crossed, and mixups are bound to happen.

-- Most workplaces are hierarchical and that necessarily leads to all sorts of Machiavellian antics. Sex and power-politics are intertwined. In such environments, people WILL harass each other. In such environments, people WILL falsely accuse others of harassment.

-- As many have pointed out, there's no general rule of thumb that applies to all workplaces. It's quite possible to work in one office were risque banter is part of the culture. If one moves from such an office to a more "politically correct" office, and if one isn't all that great at picking up social queues, problems can arise.

Once someone makes a complaint, all sorts of other complex dynamics come into place. Many other people -- all with their own places in the hierarchical ladder -- get involved. Some people want to protect the person who was supposedly harassed; some people want to protect the supposed harasser; some people want to protect the company. And, of course, everyone knows these dynamics exist, so some real victims don't speak up for fear of what might happen.

In short: yes, there's very real sexual harassment; yes, there are very real false accusations; yes, there are very real gray areas; yes, managers respond appropriately to complaints; yes, managers respond inappropriately to complaints.

Yes, offices are filled with complicated, multi-faceted people who all have to co-exist in a power-drenched environment.
posted by grumblebee at 10:54 AM on August 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Slashdot is a boyzone a great deal of the time.

My best advice is that you not engage in sexual innuendo, banter and joking. It's unprofessional at best, and can contribute to a hostile work environment. That doesn't result in prison time, but if you read you employer's manual, you'll very likely find that it's prohibited. I have had coworkers of either sex who went way over the line, and I really don't like being around it.

I was sexually harassed by an employer before the term existed and left the job. If the most you have to give up is ribald humor, it's not much of a sacrifice. You gain a more professional workplace. Pretty good deal.
posted by theora55 at 11:35 AM on August 5, 2007

+1 grumblebee

I do think that guys who fear sexual harassment suits from every random female co-worker are paranoid. But if their social radar is that far off, it's probably just as well that they be over-cautious.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:38 AM on August 5, 2007

(For what it's worth, I think your question shows a little of the same confusion I've seen in so many co-workers. Sexual harrassment doesn't just mean "telling jokes about sex." It means, at the very least, that you're using the jokes as a weapon, to intimidate someone or make them feel unwelcome. Doesn't sound like you're doing much of that at the hospital.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:47 AM on August 5

Well said. Of course sexual harrassment is (still) a serious problem, but I don't think you have much to worry about. You could always ask some of your coworkers if they're ok with your joking next time you're in a group with them. For what it's worth, I have a family member who is a nurse and she's said the humor in a hospital can be slightly risque - which I attribute a bit to the idea of gallows humour. Of course be respectful always, play well with others, etc. etc. And I'm not sure if SlashDot is necessarily a standard to measure social mores per se...
posted by rmm at 11:59 AM on August 5, 2007

I think part of it also has to do with the fact that men don't seem to realize how much women do get harassed and don't complain about it. The setting's a bit different, but for the purposes of illustration, look at the study that just came out about sexual harassment and assault on the NYC subway system. The Feminist Daily News summarized the findings: "Women comprised 99 percent of the 10 percent of respondents who reported having been sexually assaulted and of the 63 percent who reported having been sexually harassed."

Which means that about two-thirds of women riding the NYC subway have been subject to "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, including flashing, groping, fondling, and public masturbation," and one out of every ten women has been subject to "non-consensual sexual acts, including attempted rape, forced oral/anal
intercourse, rape, and aggravated touching.”

Accusations of sexual harassment get portrayed as these bizarre, out-of-left-field things, women just arbitrarily deciding that the dominant culture isn't gentle enough for their daisy-like sensibilities. And what I think it actually happening is that the dominant culture often sucks for women, and sexual harassment laws should function as a way of saying, "Hey, everyone? This shit you've been doing for the past couple decades? Is really shitty. Stop it. At all times. It's a nasty and inappropriate way of conducting yourself as a professional, no matter who you're talking to." They should have been a way of telling everyone that the old ways of doing business were hurtful to everyone, and that treating your co-workers with respect was now mandatory at all times.

Instead, the idea that seems to have stuck was "Women can't handle the normal way of doing business," and rather than trying to understand why the normal way of doing business may not have been so awesome, some particularly self-unaware guys are now feeling personally attacked. Especially since they look around and see that, quite literally, the dominant culture is telling them it's perfectly ok to sexually harass women, that doing so is acceptable behavior and not cause for alarm. After all, "96 percent of respondents who indicated that they were sexually harassed did not contact the NYPD and/or the MTA to file a report or seek assistance, and 96 percent of respondents who indicated that they have witnessed an
incident of sexual harassment stated that they did not contact the NYPD and/or the MTA to file a report or seek assistance."

So you have a culture in which women are repeatedly getting sexually harassed, on a daily basis, and a culture in which this is considered normal and no cause for alarm. And you've got laws designed to teach people that this is, in fact, not normal, that it's something all good people should find abhorrent, but instead of holding ourselves up to a higher standard of behavior, we've got insecure resentful men deciding that no woman should tell him how to behave. And we have women who are swallowing their anger day after day, who are teaching men who harass them that they won't fight back, until finally these women do get sick of it and fight back -- which then gets seen as an arbitrary explosion based on a little teeny thing, because we as a society ignore all the small everyday indignities we expect women to put up with without complaint.

So. You've got a male-dominated professional culture that's not taking it upon itself to change. You've got a male-dominated social culture that sees harassing women as a harmless, and possibly friendly, diversion. You've got women who are trained to be quiet and complacent, not to make waves, and you've got women who are getting angrier and angrier that being quiet is not helping them get problems solved. And you've got men who are used to quiet women starting to feel extremely threatened that their favorite toys suddenly have autonomy, and are angry.

In other words, the entire situation sucks. But anyone, on any side of the debate, that tries to claim they don't understand why the other side is the way it is, that they hate working with the opposite gender (!?!?!?!) because they're so whimsical and arbitrary, is simply not making any effort to understand; it's just a giant declaration of selfish, self-serving intellectual laziness.
posted by occhiblu at 12:04 PM on August 5, 2007 [11 favorites]

occhiblu, that was such a fantastic, insightful post that I hate to criticize it. But I think you left out one things: the fact that there ARE people who do (willfully) wrongly accuse other, innocent people of sexual harassment.

By saying this, I feel like I risk putting MYSELF in the camp of guys who "just don't get it" -- who don't understand what women go through on a daily basis. That's not true. And, in fact, had you made a post that ONLY talked about wrongful accusations, I'D be here urging YOU to take the "women's view" into account.

This issue is so polarized that if you risk brining up the fact that SOMETIMES people are falsely accused, you can come across as defending harassment or of marginalizing victims. But people both harassed and wrongfully accused. I have no idea what percentage of people fall into each category, but both are really troubling.

The fact is, I'm a highly respectful guy. Hell, I could never work up the courage to hold a woman's hand if I was out on a date with her and she seemed attracted to me. I can't imagine being bold enough to harass someone. Yet even I am occasionally scared of being falsely accused. I'm not afraid that I'll do something that will be misinterpreted. I'm scared that I won't do anything at all, and that I'll still be accused because someone wants power over me and that's one way to get it.

When addressing this problem, it's VITAL that we address the WHOLE problem. It's vital that we get everyone to understand what it's like to be a woman in the workplace (and your post eloquently explains that). It's also vital that we address the real (or even imagined) fears of many men in the workplace.

[Here's a similar issue: I spent YEARS working with children. During that time, I saw several people falsely accused of molesting them. As a result, I would NEVER work with children again. It's just too scary. That's too bad, because I was really good with kids. In a way, it felt like working with them was my "calling." Maybe my fears are over-the-top, but they're real fears. They're not based on guilt (I'm not attracted to kids and I don't want power over them). They're not based on fear that some innocent action of mine will be misinterpreted. They're based on fear that a power-hungry person will want to hurt me.

And, of course, I realize that plenty of children ARE abused, and this MUST be taken seriously.]
posted by grumblebee at 12:25 PM on August 5, 2007

One more data point: New study demonstrates how much women are penalized for getting angry in the workplace (while men are rewarded for it), which again shows how the dominant workplace culture tells women to sit down and shut up, and I would argue that that expectation -- not some sort of frivolity, whimsy, or inexplicable emotionality on the part of women -- is what makes women's anger, when expressed through lawsuits, seems arbitrary to some men.
posted by occhiblu at 12:27 PM on August 5, 2007

grumblebee, I agree, but I think it's a mistake to focus on the small proportion of people who game the system (any system), rather than the majority of people who are hurt by it. I think the idea of false accusations is mainly a red herring used by people as a way to handwave the problem (any problem) away; and in this particular instance, I think it's a way to keep the focus on women's "irrational emotionality," but putting the blame back on them for being offended.
posted by occhiblu at 12:30 PM on August 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Maybe I'm nitpicking over words, but I'm concerned by your phrase "it's a way to..." which makes it sound like whenever a guy wants to talk about his fears of being falsely accused, it's a tactic to skew the focus. Certainly it CAN be, but I guarantee you that this is a very real fear that many men have. It needs to be talked about and dealt with.

ALL the problems need to be talked about and dealt with.

I don't think it's ever fair to say "we can't deal with problem A because doing so obscures problem B." I don't accept that. There's a way to deal with both A AND B. If A has a history of obscuring B, the solution is not to avoid A. The solution is to deal with A in a different way.
posted by grumblebee at 12:40 PM on August 5, 2007

No, what I'm saying is that focusing on the outliers, rather than looking at the substantially larger main problem, obscures what we're talking about.

Men fear false accusations. That's fine and understandable. The productive way of coming to terms with those fears is for the man to talk about the overall problem, find out what women think are problematic interactions, do an honest evaluation of himself to see if he engages in those behaviors, and continue to engage in these conversations and continue to monitor his behaviors and beliefs -- and continue to challenge his behaviors and beliefs -- as a way of committing to an ongoing process of becoming a more compassionate, understanding human being willing to take other people's opinions, feelings, and lives into account.

(I'm not saying it's only men who need to do this; I think it's imperative on each of us to live our lives in this way with regards to other people, especially if we benefit from the privilege of being part of a dominant group.)

What is not productive in dealing with one's fears is other-ing women, labeling them irrational or unpredictable, and deciding that working with them is too difficult to undertake.
posted by occhiblu at 12:48 PM on August 5, 2007

Also, I mean, I fear getting raped and robbed and murdered and fired and all sorts of other things. I would like to live my life without fearing that other people were going to hurt me in order to gain power over me, but you know, it happens sometimes. Some people are awful creatures. But that's got nothing to do with gender, and so it pisses me off when "Women lie!" gets brought into discussions like this as if it's something that's got to be eliminated immediately before allowing that women should have the right to a harassment-free workplace or a rape-free life.

Yes, women lie. Men lie. Women cheat. Men cheat. To stop the cheating and lying, we need to work at creating a better, more just system for everyone, not hurl accusations at each other as we scurry to grab up as many crumbs as possible.
posted by occhiblu at 12:51 PM on August 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think we're basically in agreement, occhiblu (I totally agree with your final paragraph in that last post), though we're stressing different things.

It upsets me a little when I hear -- as I often have -- the sort of thing you wrote in your post before that, which is that the best way for men to with their fears is to try to better understand what women are going through and to try to be more compassionate.

I'm not talking about men who -- through misunderstanding or poor social skills -- harass a woman without understanding what they're doing. I'm talking about men who NEVER harass women in any way shape or form but who get accused of it anyway (or profoundly fear this happening). By the way, if this happened to me, I wouldn't only be upset because I would lose my job (or whatever), I would be deeply, deeply ashamed that people thought of me as a harasser.

I agree that talking about this stuff often leads to "women lie!" which is both untrue (and a generalization), sexist, and horrible.

But imagine a reversal of the situation. Imagine an office in which 90% of the men had been falsely accused of harassment. Let's say that, in this imaginary office, the powers that be decided to deal with the problem, and they started coming down really hard on the false accusers. Now, imagine in this same office that there's ONE woman who has genuinely harassed. Should we ignore her because she's an outlier case? Should we not focus on her because doing so creates the impression that, in general, men do harass women (whereas in our fictional office, the general reality is that they don't). Should we ignore her because not doing so creates the impression that "men lie!"

No. We need to take her VERY VERY seriously. And we're capable of doing so. We're capable of addressing multiple problems, though -- sadly -- we often convince ourselves that we can't.

Going back to my childcare example, back in the 90s, when child-care workers were getting continually accused of child abuse, there were countless meeting and task forces set up to protect children. Where could I go to deal with my fears that I'd be falsely accused? No where!

Why can't we deal with BOTH problems?
posted by grumblebee at 1:23 PM on August 5, 2007

Part of what I'm trying to say is that if you live in fear of other people taking advantage of you, in whatever way, shape, or form, then you've got to take some of the responsibility for dealing with that on yourself, rather than blaming other people for causing it.

If I'm constantly scared I'm going to be mugged, and I think that muggings are usually done by poor black men, so I say that I'm never going to interact in any way with poor black men because they're all thieves, then doesn't that assumption and that plan of action say something (not very flattering) about me and about how I deal with people?

What I'm saying is, the assumption that women are out to screw men over is a sexist assumption. Men who are seriously afraid of such a thing, to the point where it would dictate who they're comfortable working with, have some issues. They're not unusual issues, they're not insurmountable issues, but they're based on a Fear of the Other that's not supported by evidence, and is, in fact, contradicted by evidence.

If someone falsely accuses you of anything, there's plenty of places to go; most harassment suits are worked through in some sort of formal setting, and most harassment laws specifically require that the harasser gets at least one warning about his or her behavior. Someone who's fired out of the blue, with no warning or indication, for sexual harassment is likely working in a company filled with other arbitrary rules that encourage worker insecurity, and I doubt sexual harassment accusations are the main thing that worker has to fear, anyway -- which goes back to the point of my last paragraph in my previous comment. We have a fucked-up, winner-takes-all approach to everything in this country (yay, capitalism) that pits workers against each other and we try to scratch each others' eyes out to get ahead. Of course it makes for screwed-up office politics, especially when it seems like, with more women and minorities in the workplace, there's more competition for jobs (and hence more eye-scratching). But scapegoating women for putting men's jobs at risk is engaging in some fairly dangerous thinking, and I think any solution that encourages a "He said/she said" winner-take-all mindset (as I think focusing on false accusations does) rather than working to elevate the entire atmosphere of a workplace is problematic. It's a way of framing it as women's fault rather than as a workplace-atmosphere problem.
posted by occhiblu at 1:40 PM on August 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

Also, I feel like we're getting way off track here, so I'm out. Feel free to email me, as always.
posted by occhiblu at 1:43 PM on August 5, 2007

I would rather tend to disagree with occhiblu. The way to deal with the fear of false accusations is to eliminate false accusations, not force “men” to reprogram themselves. In a false allegation, the problem is the person making the allegation, not “men” or the target of the allegation.
posted by joeclark at 11:46 AM on August 6, 2007

I'm a 24 year old male, and I work in an office that is almost entirely staffed by women aged 35-65 (there are three or four other dudes in an office of 150 people or so). When I started the job, they read me the riot act about sexual harassment. I had to take several online courses, and I was specifically warned by no less than four supervisors about the zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment here.

That being said, I hear some of the dirtiest shit I've ever been exposed to at this office. A lot of these women flirt with me unashamedly, and I'm pretty much always at a loss for how to appropriately respond. Some of the comments that have been made to/about me could definitely be construed as harassment, but I'm definitely not offended enough to make a stink about it. I usually just grin like an idiot, and do my best to avoid making jokey comments that might get me in trouble.

I don't know anyone who has gotten in trouble for sexual harassment here, but there have been allusions to 'problems in the past,' and I definitely work with a number of the 'complainers' essexjan mentioned upthread. There's a weird dichotomy to the atmosphere here with respect to policy and practice, but since I don't really feel uncomfortable, I guess it isn't harassment per se.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 1:19 PM on August 6, 2007

To a man that's not a harraser, occhiblu's comment about not being distracted by outliers will not ring true, because to those men both harrasers and false accusers have outlier status. Telling those men to ignore this outlier so we can focus on this other outlier won't be very compelling.

As for the original question, the most egregious example I know of was that when a female friend of many years was applying for entry level post-college positions in finance firms, one of her interviewers was a man with a "World's Greatest Dad" plaque on his desk that made a point of describing his cock during the interview.

I think my favorite thought in the whole thread is the point that it's not that a sexist comment created offense that was bad, but that it was made. Now we just have establish universal agreement on what constitutes a sexist comment. No sweat, right?

My least favorite idea is that a mere unwanted advance constitutes harassment. That language is way too broad and needs refinement, like maybe only qualifying if the "advancer" already knew the recipient's state of mind regarding the proposition. It needs to be made explicit that it refers to something besides just getting turned down.
posted by NortonDC at 4:34 PM on August 7, 2007

NortonDC - I agree with your whole post pretty much, and I think you make a good point about the outliers - although most women won't see it that way, because they encounter sexist behavior and power games very often, and hear of false accusations rarely. As would men who don't harass, if they looked at behavior around them rather than just their own behavior.

I do wonder though, whether your 'least favorite idea' referred to my post (my example of the three women who were hit on by the same guy at work), and I wanted to clarify that I think there's a big difference between someone putting out subtle (or even clumsy, up to a point) signs of interest, and what the man I was talking about did, which was to approach them in isolated parts of the workplace, and say (almost exactly) "Hey, baby, you got a boyfriend? You look hot when you're all sweaty and working, but you seem like you need some dick. I could provide that if you want, I'd like to give you a good hard fuck." I mean, I've started relationships at work, lots of us have, but that wasn't even said with the genuine intent to get a date (I think!).
posted by crabintheocean at 5:30 PM on August 7, 2007

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