Making Good Out of Bad: Confronting Sexual Harassment

Making Good Out of Bad: Confronting Sexual Harassment

Confronting Sexual Harassment: What Was Bad is Now Making Good

Sexual harassment is about an abuse of power and it is a gender issue. Approximately 84% of sexual harassment claims reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are brought by women. The belief is that less than 30% of actual sexual harassment is reported and far fewer lead to formal complaints. We know this to be true because we’ve seen it play out in the news. Women, who have held their experiences in the dark – some for decades – finally came out to share how they had been victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault. While the women are all different, they share a common refrain. They were afraid they wouldn’t be believed. Or, even if they were believed, their lives and careers would be harmed irreparably. That’s bad. Really Bad. Thankfully, what was bad is now “making good.”

Our Clarion Call for Equity in the Workplace

As difficult as it was for these women to come forth, we are indebted to them. They have started, or at least strengthened, the latest wave of the women’s rights movement. Once the women who were allegedly victimized by former Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore came forward, they spawned an outpouring of women across industries to share their own horrific experiences under the hashtag, #metoo. Their courage is far reaching. They are catalysts for the conversations now taking place across America’s workplaces. They are causing men to think about, and in most cases apologize for their behavior. I hope they are causing harassers to change their behavior. They are empowering women (and men) who have experienced harassment to speak up. More importantly, they are reminding women that we have power too, especially when we come together and support one another. Because of them, we have a chance to make something good happen from all the bad. Let us take up this charge. Women leading, but with men standing alongside us, let this be our clarion call for equity and equality in our workplaces, across our country and even around the world.

To Rid the Workplace of the Boogey Man, Focus on How Girls and Women Are Valued

Sexual harassment is the latest boogey man in the workplace. However, it is birthed before a person enters the world of work. It is strengthened whenever we diminish the value of girls and women in our society. If we just look around – open our eyes and ears – we will recognize systems of inequity and acts of oppression that enable this bad behavior to thrive. I admit, I am noticing more since sexual harassment has been in the news. Messages undervaluing women abound. It’s in the boardrooms that are filled with men. It’s in our Congress when a room of men are deciding women’s healthcare. It’s in our music whenever we refer to women as bitches and hoes or valuable only as objects of men’s desires. It’s on the movie screens when women are continuously cast in stereotypical roles supporting powerful men. It’s even in our classrooms when girls are discouraged and even directed away from math and science or careers dominated by men. It’s in our homes when we tell girls they are to be seen and not heard. I hope that doesn’t still exist, but somewhere it probably does. All of these messages and images undermine a woman’s value, not just to the woman but also to the man. Let us confront these systems with fervor so that we can all live and work in harassment-free environments.


Five Steps You Can Take to be Part of the Solution

How can we all confront systems of power and oppression that lead to hotbeds for sexual harassment to thrive? What roles can we play when we know someone is experiencing or has experienced harassment? Here are 5 really simple steps you can take to be a part of the solution.

  1. Observe. The Department of Homeland Security has a trademarked saying, “If You See Something, Say Something.” This hallmark message reminds us that we all play a part in preventing bad behavior. On their website, they say, “So if you see something you know shouldn’t be there—or someone’s behavior that doesn’t seem quite right—say something.” It starts with being observant.


  1. Speak up. I know this can be difficult. We’ve seen how fear can cause victims to suppress their experiences for decades. However, I believe if more of us report bad behavior, we can prevent it from spreading in the workplace. Follow your company’s policies and practices for reporting workplace harassment. It’s okay if you are not sure what you have seen or experienced is sexual harassment. Let those trained to do this work figure that out. What you do know is that the behavior does not look or feel right. That’s all you need to know to move forward. By speaking up, you start the investigative process.


  1. Listen. If a victim does not feel she will be believed, she is more likely to keep it to herself and suffer in silence. If someone comes to you about an experience they believe is hostile, listen. They are coming to you because they trust you. Your openness to listening and not judging validates the victim’s concerns. It gives her power to move in a positive direction toward constructive solutions. Telling a woman to ignore her experience or waving it off as “that’s just how he is,” exacerbates the issue and enables sexual harassment to thrive in the organization. Once you have listened, direct the victim to the resources that can help her.


  1. Support. The most beautiful response is to let the victim know you will support her as she goes through the process of elevating her concerns and dealing with them. Your support does not mean that you will fix it for her, but that she does not have to face this alone. The best support is to connect the victim to the resources trained to help her.


  1. Act. It is normal to be angry if you are a victim or you are the trusted family or friend of a victim. However, overreacting can actually lead to more stress and poor decisions. Consult the resources that are trained to help. Be thoughtful and persistent in your actions.  Your greatest strength is in your advocacy. Join with others who are working to create more equitable workplaces and increase diversity and inclusion.

For more on steps you can take, read this blog post by Jim C. Hines, Supporting Victims of Sexual Harassment.

Let us Make Good Out of Bad

I am a firm believer that out of every bad situation, something good can happen. It took the women who shared their painful stories of sexual harassment and assault to wake us up to an issue that some thought was dying in our workplaces. Sadly, it has been there all along and even thriving. Let us do our parts to confront sexual harassment and the systems of sexist oppression that allow it to continue. Let us offer support to victims and channel our actions toward advocacy and solutions. Let us be mindful of how subtle, and not so subtle, messages devalue women and perpetuate the objectification of women. Let us make good out of bad.


When we know better, we do better. 


© 2017, Tonya Harris Cornileus, Ph.D.

All Rights Reserved.


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