According to a 2020 poll by Pew Research, of the 57% of adults who think the country can do more for gender equality, 82% of women and 72% of men point to sexual harassment as a major obstacle. While the #MeToo movement raised awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace, it left intact the underlying cultural biases that facilitated the toxic behavior to begin with—namely, the ones that foster aggression and dominance in men and the ones that sexually objectify, diminish, and silence women.
What we are teaching boys and girls to value
Those cultural biases are deeply entrenched, largely because they have been encouraged since early childhood. For example, by elementary school, boys report that displays of real emotion beyond anger are usually discouraged. This is well-internalized by adolescence. In a Plan International study, when teens were asked about the pressures they felt, boys said they felt pressure to be physically strong, be willing to throw a punch if provoked, dominate others, and “hook up with” a girl.
For girls, cultural biases fostering later sexual harassment also start early. Among 7 to 10-year-old girls, more than one-third report that they are made to feel that their looks are their most important quality. By the time they are teens, when they are asked what “trait society values the most in girls,” of all the possible traits in the world, half the teens named something about physical attractiveness. Only 1% of them named anything to do with competence or ability. Not only are they supposed to be attractive, but girls also learn that their worth comes from being sexualized. Sixty-nine percent of girls ranging in age from 10 to 19 said they felt they had been judged as a sexual object “at least once in a while” in their daily life, and 22% said they feel this way “frequently. ”
Because boys often perpetrate sexual harassment as a way to prove their masculinity, by the end of high school, about 90% of girls have been sexually harassed. Yet, girls have long been taught to be passive and responsible for others’ feelings, so more than half of girls say they would not report sexual harassment behaviors “because people would not like them if they did.” They also fear backlash from the harasser (or his friends). So, even though sexual harassment causes substantial psychological harm, girls don’t report it for fear of not being liked or being socially punished.
What happens when they get to work
As these boys and girls grow into adults and enter the workforce, these entrenched patterns of behavior and cultural norms are hard to leave behind. Sexual harassment at work does not need to involve sexual coercion or threat of firing to be harmful–sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks are also distracting, demeaning, and often go unreported. In schools, teachers often ignore these “mild” forms of sexual harassment, and students know it. When teachers and staff were tolerant of sexual harassment, students had more hostile hallways. But when schools established clear expectations, students learned those norms.
Workplaces have to be equally diligent to change these entrenched gendered norms. Do women have clear, obstacle-free ways to report behavior that makes them uncomfortable? Can they do so anonymously so they don’t fear repercussions? Are the expectations of respect clearly conveyed to all employees, and given without a wink and a nod to ignore “playful banter?” Often girls state that they don’t report sexual harassment because, although they want the boy to stop, they don’t want him to get in serious trouble. Having harsh consequences for sexual harassment seems to be counterproductive. Instead, do workplaces have mechanisms in place to address these behaviors with the perpetrator without being overly punitive?
Changing the norms around sexual harassment is necessary for real gender equality. It will take more than a once-a-year, outdated training video to change the gendered culture that employees have spent their lifetimes absorbing.