Sexual Harassment: Understanding Why Men Don't 'Get It' About Speaking Up

With high-profile sexual misconduct accusations pushing sexual harassment to the front of social discussion, it is becoming clear that many men don't always know how to identify sexual harassment, let alone speak up in its midst. (Image credit: Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

With high-profile sexual misconduct accusations pushing sexual harassment to the front of social discussion, it is becoming clear that many men don't always know how to identify sexual harassment, let alone speak up in its midst.

According to the Washington Post, a recent survey tracking men's opinions on sexual harassment produced some disturbing realities:

  • 1 in 3 respondents don’t think catcalling is sexual harassment.
  • 2 in 3 don’t think repeated unwanted invitations to drinks, dinner or dates is sexual harassment.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 don’t think sexual harassment is a fireable offense.

In spite of these findings, men do seem to realize sexual harassment is pervasive:

Nearly half — 45 percent — said they have witnessed someone being sexually harassed. And of those who have witnessed it, half have seen harassment happen in the workplace.

If it is true that men are aware of the conditions women encounter, in and out of the workplace environment, what keeps them from speaking up in the face of sexual harassment? Chris Kilmartin, Ph.D., a Professor Emeritus of Psychological Science of the University of Mary Washington, explains in part:

Men can identify an obvious physical threat to someone’s safety as a bad situation, but when it isn’t black and white, the lines get a lot blurrier. For example, men might think a scenario isn’t “that bad” if there aren’t any women present, like if a male colleague is making lewd comments about a female coworker in the break room.

An underlying source of sexual harassment continues to be culturally driven, with society shifting somewhat slowly in its views on gender roles and interactions, as evidenced in the following:

“I’ve had to warn guys making comments about the [overall] attractiveness of a department. I’ll say, ‘You really shouldn’t be saying that, and you really shouldn’t be thinking of your coworkers as ‘options,’” he says. “What used to seem kind of innocent [to men] is not, and it’s perceived to be a problem [to women].” -Jimmy, a 40-year-old software company CEO (who declined to use his full name or share the name of his company)

What can we do? Researchers prescribe various methods to enable safer workplace environments:

Dr. Kilmartin notes that there needs to be a multi-pronged approach to tackling these issues. Raising awareness through something like a #MeToo campaign is one of them, he says. But that’s not all. For example, Dr. Kilmartin found that one way to tackle the issue of how perpetrators corner victims is to create fewer spaces where they can be alone; in a workplace, that could mean putting windows in office doors so that superiors and subordinates know they’re being observed.

Another critical step Dr. Kilmartin learned from his work is that men need routine practice stepping up in situations of harassment and assault before that clear-cut, super obvious moment strikes. His research suggests that taking the time to practice how to react in these situations does lead men to step in more.

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