Gretchen Carlson: “Every damn woman still has a story’ about harassment”

If we take ex Fox News commentator Carlson’s quote literally being a man takes another hit.   Are men so sex crazed that we see women in the workplace and on college campuses as sex objects ripe for exploitation?   Based on survey results it would appear that the answer to the question is yes.  Personally, I have a hard time accepting that men as a group are behaving that badly.  I am concerned that men internalize these stories reinforcing the notion that masculine energy is a negative quality.  It just adds another piece of evidence for the growing gender confusion among young adult men and reinforcing the reactionary push back from the cave man minority.  Let me be clear, I in no way condone any form of sexual harassment.

However, I believe we need to have a more nuanced conversation on what we are talking about.  As is typical of our bullet point media the confusion surrounding what actually is sexual harassment is not adequately addressed.   A glaring example is the disparity between the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) definition of workplace sexual harassment compared to the verbiage of federal and state statutes.   The AAUW definition is quite broad and states that sexual harassment as any, “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”  On the other hand the EEOC and most states define sexual harassment as two legally recognized types  – quid pro quo sexual harassment, hostile environment sexual harassment.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an individual’s submission to or rejection of sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting the individual or the individual’s submission to such conduct is made a term or condition of employment.   Hostile environment sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome sexual conduct unreasonably interferes with an individual’s job performance or creates a hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment even though the harassment may not result in tangible or economic job consequences, that is, the person may not lose pay or a promotion.

A hypothetical  illustration should prove useful in highlighting the problem of defining sexual harassment.

Amy is a customer service representative at an insurance company.  She works in a cubicle adjacent to Larry.   Larry is married and generally not an individual Amy relates to in the work environment.   One afternoon near quitting time, Larry peeks in to Amy’s cubicle and says that she is a piece of ass and he would like to take her out, get her drunk and take her back to her apartment for an evening of sexual activity.   He describes what he would like to do with her in bed in sexually explicit language.   Amy tells him that he is inappropriate and to never talk to her like that again.

According to the AAUW guidelines Amy was subjected to sexual harassment and would so indicate on an AAUW survey asking if she ever was a victim of sexual harassment.   However, in terms of state and federal law if this was a onetime incident with Larry it would not constitute harassment and a survey using state statuary language would have Amy indicate she is not a victim.  Certainly if Larry continued to make these advances despite Amy telling him to stop she would have a legitimate claim under the hostile work environment definition and should immediately report him to her human relations (HR) department and possibly seek relief legally if HR doesn’t address the issue.   Even if Larry were Amy’s supervisor and he did not indicate or suggest in any way that his proposition would effect her employment status it would not constitute sexual harassment under legal guidelines but would engender a yes on an AAUW survey.

The distinctions between the two standards of sexual harassment have a significant impact on the conversation about harassment and what can be done about it.   If we just use the AAUW definition then Gretchen’s comment is indeed true and we live in a world of perpetual sexual harassment.   The outcome is that men in the workplace will be constantly walking on eggshells around female colleagues and subordinates, feel more insecure about their masculine identity and most importantly we will lose focus on eliminating the truly damaging cases of sexual harassment.   If HR folks and lawyers are overloaded with the superfluous how can they deal with the truly serious cases?

Both sexes will be better served if he follow the federal guidelines and investigate and punish the true sexual harassers.