Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace 

  • Introduction  
  • Discussion Questions
  • Legal Rights and Prevention
  • Documentation and Resolution
  • Examples of Sexual Harassment cases
  • Closing Discussion/Open Forum


What is Sexual Harassment? It is about power and control and hardly ever about sex. For most of history men have traditionally put women below them in status. It takes a long time for traditional attitudes to change. Despite that it has been almost 100 years since women were given the right to vote, there is still an attitude by men and women to be separate and not equal. Luckily, there are laws to protect women from emotional or physical assaults. It is important to understand that men can also be victims of harassment by women or men. It does not happen as often, but it is still wrong. Making someone feel inferior, stupid or uncomfortable does not belong in the workplace or in any part of life.

Attitudes persist that women should not be working or getting an education. It is easy to find excuses in every field and industry that has been predominately male or female.

  • Women are not financially responsible for families so they should not be paid as much or take work away from a man.
  • Women are only working to find a husband.
  • Worries that women will not fit in or make it less fun because the man have to be politically correct all the time,
  • Often men are fearful of women who are strong and independent or men that act more feminine than themselves.

Why is harassment such a big deal? Whether sexual or mean, harassing someone causes a person to lose their job because their work suffers. It can cause a loss of interest in their work, calling in sick out of fear, and making mistakes due to worrying when the next harassment will happen.

Types of sexual harassment. It starts with sexism, which is the attitude that one gender or sexual orientation is better or more competent than the other.  It includes sexual innuendo/jokes, threats, physical touch, unwanted romantic advances, pressure to do work beneath your status or that is not part of your job because it is “women’s work”, financial abuse via lower pay than others, and threatening to fire you for not participating in sexual activities.

Joining in with coworkers who make sexual jokes may seem like a good way to diffuse the situation, but it can also backfire on you. If the harassment increases and you decide to file a complaint your previous participation can be used to weaken your case. It is very unfair, but the way you dress can also affect a future complaint. It is never the victims fault for being harassed, but people are visual and associate types of clothing different ways.  Dress to impress in a professional manner by following the employer guidelines. Following these guidelines will work in your favor for complaining of any harassment. Unfortunately, being coy or flirty can also be seen as an invitation that sexual innuendo or jokes are appropriate. However that may seem true to someone, it is not. Victim blame is a popular way to make someone feel as if they are responsible for harassment. You are NEVER responsible for another person’s actions. We each have the power to make our own choices and cannot blame someone for being a victim.  You always have a right to say that any activity is no longer appropriate. If you feel a line has been crossed it is up to you to define it. Other people cannot read your mind. Speaking up is the only way to let other people know you do not appreciate their language or attitude.

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever been sexually harassed?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • What actions did you take to stop the harassment?
  • Do you feel that fearful of standing up to harassment?
  • Is it fair that the way you dress or your body type defines how people act towards you?
  • Are you comfortable with speaking up for yourself or others when you are in an unfriendly situation?

Legal Rights and Prevention

You have the right not to be called a bitch if you stand up for yourself. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act makes employment discrimination based on sex illegal.  This prohibits retaliation against any person who reports or assists in the investigation of sexual harassment. There are various city and state laws that can offer broader protection or compensation.

Nationally you can contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Office. or 1-800-669-4000

Stop Harassment Before it Starts. Prevention is always the best way to deter problems.

  • Be aware of how you act towards your coworkers and supervisors.
  • Don’t gossip about personal problems of your own or another employer.
  • Sexual harassment can also be claimed by customers, contract personal or delivery drivers. It is best to keep any sexual jokes or innuendo completely out of the workplace.
  • Keep your work life and personal life separate. There are some things you may not want to share with your coworkers or employers. It is fine to mention events and activities about your personal life at work. However, sharing how drunk you got at your cousins wedding or how you got away with shoplifting in Jr. High are not things you should share at work.

Confront harassment before it gets out of line. Make clear and simple statements. Use a steady and firm voice, but do not berate or attack because than you can be accused of harassment or escalating the situation.

  • You are not funny
  • Stop degrading me. Women are not objects.
  • I don’t want you to do that.
  • When I say No/Stop I mean it.

Does ignoring harassment make it stop? Avoiding your coworker, denying that anything bad is happening or ignoring harassment will not stop it. You are not the problem, so by doing nothing or pretending it isn’t happening is not a solution. The problem is with the individual or group that is out of line.

Neutralize the situation. Ask other co workers how it makes them feel. Start a discussion with your coworkers who feel harassed or uncomfortable. If you feel ganged up on or are arguing in circles it is time to end the conversation and step away.

Assemble coworkers to present a united front to end the harassment.  Inform the harassers that you will not tolerate sexist behavior. In a non-threatening way, explain to your harasser(s), your supervisor, or the authorities with details of the harmful actions. You have a right to work in an environment that does not include sexual jokes or anti-woman attitudes.

Deal with Difficult or Unwavering People.  Oftentimes confronting a harasser causes them to go on the defensive. Be aware of these retorts to your complaint.

  • I was only joking, why can’t you take a joke?
  • You are being overly sensitive.
  • Oh you are one of those “feminist” women.
  • You can’t tell me what to do.
  • You are such a prude.
  • What are you like a lesbian? Do you hate men?
  • Just because you don’t like to have fun doesn’t mean the rest of us have to suffer.

Retorts like the ones listed above are aggravating and are said with the intent to embarrass you or make you second guess your complaint. They are not valid, but rather immature and mean spirited. You can reply with the following retorts.

  • It’s not a joke if it makes other people feel bad.
  • Just because you have a limited sense of humor doesn’t mean I can’t take a joke.
  • I am not being sensitive. You are being rude.
  • Feminism is simply a movement that says women are equal to men. Why do you feel so insecure towards that idea?
  • I am not telling you what to do. I am asking you to be respectful at work. You can say whatever you like on your own time.
  • Being a prude has nothing to do with it. I do not like what you are saying/doing and I am asking you to stop because it makes me feel uncomfortable. Would you like it if I made jokes about the size of your penis or intelligence?
  • Calling someone a lesbian or man hater is not a good comeback.  We are not in elementary school anymore. You have the choice to act like an adult.
  • I do not appreciate that you are trying to make me into the bad guy here. I am simply expressing my discomfort at your negative attitude towards women/ homosexuals/ sexual jokes.

If your harasser continues to argue or refuses to stop their actions you need to speak to a supervisor.

Practice. Young women are not often taught how to directly stand up against verbal abusers. I have found this to be one of the easiest reasons for men and other women to take advantage of them. Practicing the art of calmly fighting back in a safe environment will give them an idea of how it feels to be outspoken. At this time I would like to have the students stand up and take turns practicing these or coming up with their own non-threatening responses.

Documentation and Resolution

Steps to take.Document the harassment in a letter. Explain what actions and or words are upsetting you.

  • What offended you?
  • How often does harassment occur?
  • Who else was there to see it happen?
  • Who else was involved?
  • Was it in front of security cameras or recorded on a phone camera?
  • Do you have proof of any harassment other than your word?

What are your employer’s rules and regulations regarding sexual harassment? Generally you should follow the chain of command up. Start with your immediate supervisor all the way up to the president or owner of the organization.

If your employer is not putting an end to the harassment you have the right to contact your local government and take arbitrary action such as filing a civil suit or suing for damages.

Take Stock of the Situation

  • How has the harassment affected you?
  • What resolution do you hope to have after filing your complaint?
  • Do you want to continue working at your job?

Depending on your situation and the level of abuse, you may qualify for back pay from missed work, reinstatement or even promotion.

If you are not wiling to file a complaint or if nothing changes and you do not want to take your harassment to court, than your option is to put up with the abuse. I really hope you will not or resign from your job, but if you can find similar or better work elsewhere that is an option. Your feelings matter and you should not be uncomfortable or fearful to work at any job or in any industry.

Examples of Harassment at Work

Sadly there is no shortage of sexual harassment cases that are brought to court or filed at work. On the positive side of that, unlike 40 years ago, today women can actually file suits in the hopes to find a resolution for being treated badly at work.

A)  Allegations of sexual harassment from several employees tanked the career for Senator Packwood of Oregon. He resigned in 1995 and the Chair of the Ethics Committee, announced this statement, “No work-place in America ought to tolerate the kind of offensive, degrading sexual misconduct that the ethics committee finds Senator Packwood to be guilty of. And it certainly cannot be tolerated in the United States Senate either.”

B)  Complaining about sexual harassment can be intimidating. After an extortion attempt including famous talk show host, David Letterman, it was revealed the he had participated in sexual affairs with various women who worked for him. Nell Scovell was a writer for the Tonight Show with Dave Letterman and when this news broke she shared her experience of what it was like to work in an atmosphere where you and your coworkers new your boss was having sexual affairs. “Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely. Did I say anything at the time? Sadly, no.”

C) Lora and Martha Reyes stood up for themselves after they were sexually harassed at work and then immediately fired for taking 10 minutes longer on their lunch break.  The sisters tore down photos of them hanging on the wall at work. These photos had their faces imposed on the bodies of skinny models. After complaining the manager told them to return the photos to the coworker who had created and posted the pictures.  After being fired they filed a complaint with the EEOC. In addition to filing a complaint, they delivered a petition with 100,000 signatures to Hyatt calling for the reinstatement of their jobs.

D)  Lois Jensen was hired at Eveleth Mines after the US government enforced affirmative action requiring employers to hire women and minorities in addition to men. After enduring years of abuse she and a group of other women complained, but saw no results. Lois filed with the Minnesota Human Rights Department who demanded a payment of $11,000 to Lois. Eveleth refused and Lois along with other women from the mine filed a class action lawsuit. This was not an easy trial because of attacks against Lois’s character, being ostracized by her coworkers who stood up against her and the other women and a judge who had a history of sexual harassment. After 3 trials and several years, Eveleth settled with Lois and the other women for $3.5 million.

Practicing confrontation

When confronting any difficult person or discussing an uncomfortable issue you have the power to keep the conversation from escalating into an argument by establishing a non-threatening environment.

  • Use eye contact and call people by their first name.
  • Your body language should be relaxed. Do not slouch or use depreciating humor.
  • Do not glare or raise your voice in anger. Try your best to keep a friendly or calm demeanor.
  • When people feel attacked or stressed out it is easy to want to fight back in the same way. The saying you can’t fight fire with fire is true. It only causes more negativity and lessens the chance of a positive resolution.

Listen to the other person without interrupting or arguing. Consider that this person has sexist views because that is how they were raised. Bad habits are hard to break, change takes time. Listening allows you to formulate an intelligent response. Shooting from the lip without thinking can turn ugly fast. Hold your cool and you will not only have the upper hand, but this allows you time to go back to the drawing board if you need and rethink your strategy.  Since you are fighting for a safe work environment stooping to the level of your harassers and attacking can cause more problems for you.

Closing Discussion/Open Forum

  • How do you feel when stories of sexual harassment are turned into jokes?
  • How do you feel about standing up to and complaining about offensive behavior?
  • What can you do to stop sexual harassment?
  • Who can you turn to in your personal life for help?

More information is available on Emotional Self Defense or Physical Self Defense.

4 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment”

  1. I’m glad you find it useful and will share the information. It’s a shame that society victim blames those who are sexually assualted. Together we can end such cruelty. 🙂


  2. Great article! I will use these things I’ve learnt about how to respond to harassment and share with my family and friends. We all need to stand up for eachother


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