Daily we read about yet another person who has been accused of sexual misconduct. And yet, except in the more obvious cases, people are unsure of where offensive or inappropriate behavior ends and serious sexual misconduct begins. This is the case even though the problems now surfacing have been around for a very long time. The primary shock is how many women are coming forward and the secondary one is how many men in high places have been abusing their power when it comes to women.
Both women and men need to define more clearly the types of behavior that are offensive and beyond. We need dialogues within organizations, government, across the table and across the board. We need them now. It is not solely the job of women to get these tough conversations underway. And we shouldn’t fear that there will be too much of a gray area – that we’ll never pin down the line over which men must not step. The gray area is where we need to do the hardest work. A definitive line will not arise, but we’ll know bad behavior when we see or hear of it.
Based on my years of working on ranges of political behavior from minimal to pathological, I’m introducing the spectrum below so that conversations can begin. As you’ll read, it is not cast in stone. Far from it. It is a work in progress.
So, let’s get underway. Let me know your thoughts on the categories, examples you’d like to add and where they belong.
Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (SSMW) – Kathleen Kelley Reardon, Ph.D.
This is a work-in-progress – as such human behavior spectra usually are. Decisions about which category a behavior falls into depend on the situation and on nonverbal behaviors. This is not a set of cut-and-dried categories. Rather the SSMW offers individuals and organizations a first-pass blueprint for constructive dialogue – a way to start talking about what is and isn’t sexual misconduct.
Persuasion research clearly indicates involvement by people in determining guidelines tends to facilitate adherence. So, get involved.
There’s a lot of room for humor and, no doubt, people will want to play with the categories (e.g., “Was that a welcome hug?” “Is this leering?”). But, that’s to be expected. It could even be functional, so long as when all is said and done, people know and are serious about the guidelines they’ve decided to adopt in their organizations. Then it’s time to put them into practice, revisiting and revising as needed.
It’s useful to note that even lower level offenses repeated over time can become part of dysfunctional patterns toward women (DCPs) and foster inhospitable workplace cultures, as described in They Don’t Get It, Do They? – also in my Harvard Business Review case that when viral in 1993, “The Memo Every Woman Keeps in Her Desk.”
Once the SSMW has been adapted and adopted in an organization or division, the question of responses to infringements arises. As I mentioned in, “Did You Really Say That?” there needs to be a range of ways to respond to sexual offense and misconduct – including repertoires of comebacks for women to nip problems in the bud. We can’t go around simply firing or expecting resignations from people who make mistakes. As Aristotle described, people who cause injury to others are not all wicked. It would be wrong and damaging to female-male relationships at work to treat all offenses as if they are the same.
One last thought. Yes, there should be a set of guidelines for use by women to avoid offending men and engaging in sexual misconduct. Communication is not a one-way street. We start here with behavior toward women by men. Let’s see how we do with it. I’ll look forward to your feedback, including other examples for the various categories as the SSMW moves closer to a final – yet still flexible – draft.
THE SPECTRUM OF SEXUAL MISCONDUCT AT WORK – SSMW (DRAFT 1)
Common off-the-cuff compliments on such things as hair style and dress. (“You look nice today;” “I like your haircut,” “That’s a nice outfit;” “That’s a good color on you.”
Comments on gender differences such as: “You would say that as a woman,” “I suppose it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind;” “We can’t speak frankly around you women anymore.”
Touching while talking
Patronizing toward women
Dismissiveness or repeated interrupting
Looking a woman up and down in a sexually suggestive manner
Denigrating comments about women in general
Jokes about a woman’s limited intellect or skills due to her gender
Words like “ice queen” or “female mafia” when referring to women
Grabbing, rude patting and unwelcome holding
Unwelcome, unexpected kissing
Making or telling crude jokes that demean women
Describing women with such terms as “slut” or “frigid”
Pressing against a woman suggestively
Threatening career damage to a woman who refuses to engage in sex or sexual behavior
Forcing or coercing a woman to have sex