Workplace Myths and Misconceptions about Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue. A recent survey by Cosmopolitan found that one in three women between the ages of 18 and 34 has been sexually harassed at work. The survey looked at 2,235 full-time and part-time female employees and found that one in three women has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace at some point in their lives.


Unlike the types of sexual harassment commonly portrayed in films and pop culture, which show harassment that is overtly aggressive, sexual harassment at work in real life, isn’t always as overt and isn’t easy to spot. It could be a sexual comment in a meeting or a Facebook message. Here is a significant statistic: Out of the women who said they have experienced workplace sexual harassment, 29 percent reported the issue while 71 percent did not. The fields with the highest levels of reported sexual harassment is food and service hospitality.


Defining Sexual Harassment


Sexual harassment refers to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature. However, it may include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass women by making offensive comments about women in general. Harassment is against the law when it occurs with such frequency and severity that is creates a hostile or offensive work environment. The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor or someone who is not even an employee, such as a client or customer. The defining characteristic of sexual harassment is that it is unwanted. It is critical to clearly let an offender know that certain actions are unwelcome.


Myths and Misconceptions about Sexual Harassment


Clear definitions of sexual harassment exist in federal and state laws. However, many of us are still fuzzy about what constitutes sexual harassment. Here are few sexual harassment myths and misconceptions, debunked.


 1. Sexual harassment must be physical.


This is absolutely not true because the Equality Act provides broad definition of sexual harassment. In fact, if you conduct a survey, you will very likely see that a majority of sexual harassment incidents in the workplace are not physical. Sexual harassment often includes the telling of sexual jokes, display of pornography or sexually explicit material at work and making gestures or suggestions. It is certainly sexual harassment if, for example, a supervisor propositions you or asks you to perform sexual favors in exchange for a perk at work or a promotion.


2. Only women are sexually harassed.


People tend to traditionally think of sexual harassment as something a man does to a woman. This is not always the case in the real world. At work, there is the opportunity for men and women to harass. While surveys repeatedly show that women are more likely to be harassed at work, sexual harassment of men cannot be ruled. If you are a man who is being sexually harassed at work, remember that you have the same rights as anyone else. Report the incident to your immediate supervisor and your company’s human resources department. If that doesn’t solve the problem file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the California Department of Labor.


3. Jokes or banter don’t amount to sexual harassment.


The idea that jokes and banter are “harmless” is simply not true. The courts have repeatedly debunked this notion. Frequent off-color remarks or jokes and are harmful in the workplace and can contribute to a hostile work environment. Several companies tend to minimize jokes made in front of other colleagues or even supervisors as being part of the culture. However, if it is offensive or belittling and continues to happen on a regular basis it’s not culture, it is harassment.


4. It doesn’t matter if victims don’t complain.


As surveys and studies repeatedly tell us, victims of sexual harassment often don’t complain because they fear retaliation or are afraid of losing out on promotions. This doesn’t mean that there is no sexual harassment or that there isn’t a valid claim. Often, many employees will endure harassment for years, which could have significant emotional, psychological and even professional consequences.


Sexual harassment in the workplace can make a dent in your career aspirations and your path forward. It is important that you document and report these incidents so they can be set right and prevented in the future. In fact, sexual harassment can be devastating. Studies show that most harassment has nothing to do with flirting or sexual interest. Rather it is meant to offend, frighten and insult. Research shows that women are often forced to leave school or jobs to avoid harassment and many experience serious psychological or health-related problems as a result.


5. Women invite harassment by dressing a certain way.


This is patently false. Harassment does not occur because women dress provocatively. Studies once again show that victims of sexual harassment vary in physical appearance, type of dress, age and behavior. Research also shows that less than one percent of complaints alleging sexual harassment are false. Women rarely file complaints even when they are justified in doing so.


What Can You Do If You Are Harassed?


If you are being sexually harassed, don’t blame yourself. Say “no” to the harasser. Keep a record of what happened including dates, times, places, names of those involved, witnesses and who said what to whom. Don’t keep it to yourself. Ignoring it will not make it go away. If you are experiencing severe psychological distress, you may want to consult a psychologist or other mental health professional who can help you cope with these issues. File a written complaint with your supervisor and follow up to ensure that they are taking action.


If you have been wrongfully terminated as a result of reporting harassment or discrimination, you can seek compensation for your losses. You can also file an employment lawsuit if your employer fails to stop the harassment at work. Contact an experienced OC labor lawyer who will fight hard to protect your rights and help ensure that the at-fault parties are held liable.