If your company approaches sexual misconduct with one-size-fits-all solutions, you probably aren’t protecting some of the most vulnerable workers. The experiences of women of color—and of men of color—are at risk of being misunderstood and undervalued. Looking further into sexual harassment research shows a more complex story than the typical senior male harassing a junior female. For instance, nearly one in three Asian women and one in four black women who have experienced sexual harassment were harassed by a junior colleague. 23% of black women say the harassment came from another women. One in 5 black men have been harassed by a colleague (usually female). But there are some intersectional solutions to these problems. Use technology to allow for truly confidential reporting. Update your training to include creative approaches like bystander training and opportunities for male allyship. Take action to prevent sexual misconduct across gender, race, and hierarchy.
If your company approaches the problem of sexual misconduct with one-size-fits-all solutions, chances are high you aren’t protecting some of the most vulnerable members of your workforce. The experiences of women of color—and of men of color—are at risk of being misunderstood and undervalued.
In the Center for Talent Innovation’s recent study, “What #MeToo Means for Corporate America,” we uncovered a nuanced, at times surprising, portrait of sexual misconduct. Our research illustrates the varied landscapes professional women and men of different backgrounds face when it comes to sexual misconduct. It reveals the ways race and gender intersect to complicate our standard narrative of motive, and our standard image of a senior male perpetrator and junior female victim.
After all, sexual harassment is not simply about sex. It is often a tool wielded to assert power and dominance. As Teresa Fitzsimmons, director of workplace dynamics at Lausanne Business Solutions notes, “Sexual harassment is a signal of an individual having a lack of respect for another… [it] evolves out of disrespect and asymmetric power.” That asymmetric power can refer to men harassing women, but as we discovered in our research, race and seniority can complicate the picture.
Overall, we found that 34% of female employees have been sexually harassed by a colleague. When we broke down that number by race and job level, a more complex story began to emerge.
Among the Asian women we surveyed who had been harassed, nearly one in three (31%) say that the perpetrator was a junior colleague. This finding contradicts the common assumption that harassment only comes from above.The fact that so many women in this group report bottom-up harassment may stem from stereotypes that Asian women are deferential, easy targets for younger colleagues looking to assert power. “There is the fetishization of Asian women that I see with a lot of white men,” Mila, a Vietnamese-American business development executive told us. “They expect us to be docile, easy, and exotic. But I hadn’t expected that to carry over at work.”
Similarly, nearly one in four black women who have been sexually harassed say that the perpetrator was a more junior colleague (22%) or that the perpetrator was another woman (23%).
This same dynamic plays out vividly in our exploration of male victims of sexual misconduct. Men, we find, experience a deeper shame because of gender expectations. Misconduct compromises their masculinity, making it difficult to talk about incidents of harassment or assault.
Black men are far more likely to have been sexually harassed by a colleague than men of other backgrounds. More than one in five black men have been sexually harassed by a colleague, compared to 13% of white men. And 85% of black male victims have been harassed by a woman. Colleagues may be using harassment as a weapon to assert racial dominance; and the disproportionate harassment of black men could stem from the historical fetishization of the black male body, and black men’s dual legacy of being both feared and desired.
Fortunately, there are solutions—solutions that take into account the need to report both above and below an employee’s rank in the corporate hierarchy, dig into the unique dynamic of race, and engage the full workforce in the fight against sexual misconduct. Here are methods to consider:
Conduct a culture audit. Before a company implements solutions, they must try to understand the specific landscape of sexual misconduct at their organization. Are the perpetrators in your organization most likely to leverage the power status of their seniority, their gender, their race, or a combination of these factors? How do different cohorts experience sexual misconduct, and what solutions would be most effective in addressing the challenges of each group? Because of the sensitive nature of the topic, companies must commit to gathering the information anonymously if they want honest feedback. A culture audit has the added benefit of signaling to employees that management cares about the well-being of all employees. At Nike, an informal climate survey that demonstrated widespread perceptions of bias and misconduct at the company led to the ouster of several top executives and a strategy to improve the company’s climate for women.
Allow for truly confidential reporting. Innovative technology can make reporting sexual misconduct both a more transparent and securely confidential process. Callisto is a platform that allows victims to log encrypted, time-stamped accounts of assault, with the option to surface the account to authorities if and only if someone else accuses the same person. The program was created in 2015 for use on college campuses, but has recently spread to the professional workplace with Callisto Expansion. Callisto’s approach ensures victims will not be a sole accuser and avoids “he said/she said” scenarios. It also empowers victims of color who are more likely to feel that their account would be ignored, or those whose account subverts our traditional understand of sexual power dynamics, such as male victims of sexual misconduct.
Update your training. Cutting-edge training related to sexual misconduct and gender discrimination equips the full workforce to support victims and speak up against perpetrators. Consider creative approaches to training sessions, such as bystander training, civility norms and conversations, and opportunities for male allyship. Jackson Katz, founder and director of MVP Strategies, centers his trainings around toxic masculinity, and teaches men at college campuses, locker rooms, and corporate offices across the country how to be allies. These types of trainings engage men and educate employees across all levels of the organization on the nuances of sexual misconduct, empowering them to speak up when they witness—or experience—behavior they may not have previously recognized as inappropriate, or previously felt would not have been taken seriously.
Employers and individuals who seek to simplify the problem of sexual misconduct by ignoring the intersecting factors of race, gender, and seniority will succeed only in silencing and sidelining the historically disadvantaged. The best way we can all support the #MeToo movement as it marches on is by understanding the nuanced narrative, by challenging too-simple definitions of sexual misconduct and how it occurs, and by working to prevent all misconduct across gender, race, and hierarchy.
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