Call for change

University of Maine researchers Amy Blackstone, Susan Gardner and Judith Rosenbaum participate in a roundtable discussion about sexual harassment, equitable workplace environments and #MeToo and #TimesUp.


Amy Blackstone:
I guess an easy place to start is with the law. The law recognizes two forms of sexual harassment, quid pro quo and hostile work environment harassment. Often, what we think of when we think about harassment is the hostile work environment harassment.

Anyone can be harassed. In the United States, it’s a little unique when you look at other harassment laws around the world. In that, in the U.S., the law was written so that it’s considered a form of sex discrimination.

Which means we got ourselves into a little bit of a pickle because a question early on was, well, does that mean that men can be harassed, too, or is it something that only happens to women?

What we’ve learned as we study people’s experiences with harassment is that it can be a form of sex discrimination. It can be about gender. Just because it’s about gender doesn’t mean that it only happens to women.

In our work, we’ve found, for example, that men who espouse egalitarian gender beliefs or who don’t conform to heteronormative expressions of gender are more vulnerable to being harassed. Women are more likely to be harassed than men in part because they don’t adhere to the predominant vision of what we think of as who has the most power. That’s heterosexual men.

Susan Gardner:
I’ve heard that. I heard about a study, it might have been connected to some of your work, where the women who are most likely to be harassed are those who might not fit the typical kind of gender stereotype or have more power in that workplace, so it’s more threatening. It becomes about power and not about sex.

Amy Blackstone:
Yeah, we published a paper last year with that very finding, that women who are in management positions are actually more likely to be harassed at work than women who are not in management. We think that what that’s about is keeping women in their place.

Judith Rosenbaum:
I always wonder, where’s the line between just having fun or making a joke and actual harassment? That’s been this topic of contention, right? Is that on the receivers, like in the eye of the beholder? How does that work?

Amy Blackstone:
I think that’s a question a lot of us are asking ourselves right now. Certainly, there is a line. I think a single joke may not qualify. I’m not a lawyer, I should say, but I think a single joke may not qualify as harassment. Ongoing joking, even if it’s just joking, certainly could qualify as harassment.

The question is, is the behavior you’re experiencing at work causing you to not be able to do your job? Is it causing you to feel like you’re in a climate where you don’t feel safe, where you don’t feel respected? I think that’s where the line is. What is the effect that these behaviors you’re experiencing are having on you?

Susan Gardner:
Right, and I think that point you made, too, about the difference between a one-time situation versus something that is chronic, something that happens repeated over a period of time, that really defines the hostile work environment. A one-time thing is a one-time thing, but an environment is something that’s, like you said, pervasive and repeated.

Amy Blackstone:
A task force of the EEOC found just a couple of years ago that up to 85 percent of women report harassment in the workplace. That figure varies, depending on how we measure harassment, how we ask people if they’ve experienced harassment.

If we ask people, “Have you ever been sexually harassed at work?” fewer than 85 percent will say yes to that. Many studies show that around a quarter of women will answer yes to that question.

If we ask people about the behaviors that they’ve experienced at work — so, “Has anyone ever touched you in a way that made you feel uncomfortable? Have you experienced a series of ongoing sexual joking that makes you uncomfortable, makes it difficult to work?

Has anyone invaded your personal space in a way that makes you uncomfortable?”

When we ask those kinds of questions, that’s when we find that far more women report that, “Yes, I have had those experiences.” That raises another question. Is it harassment if a person has had experiences that they themselves don’t define as harassment or experience as harassment?

Researchers have gotten better over time about asking both about the behaviors that people experience at work, but also about whether people themselves define those experiences as harassment. In our own work, we’ve found that one in three women define their experiences at work as harassment. One in seven men say yes to that question.

Judith Rosenbaum:
I can’t speak on this as an academic researcher, but it’s a violation of your sense of safety and your value.

Amy Blackstone:
There’s a lot of research that shows that the effects span all parts of a person’s life. People experience post-traumatic stress disorder. There are other mental health and physical health effects. There’s some research that shows that this affects people’s sleeping and ability to sleep, which totally makes sense.

My collaborators and I just did a paper last year that showed that people who experience harassment report much greater financial strain two years after their harassment than they did when compared to people who were not harassed.

They’re also six and a half times more likely to leave their jobs than those who are not harassed, which has long-term economic consequences for them.

In addition to doing survey research, we interviewed some of our survey respondents. I’ll never forget interviewing one woman who described an experience being harassed at an advertising agency.

It got bad enough that she was going to leave, but she didn’t have another job lined up yet. What she said to me was, “That’s it. I’ll live in the dark and eat rice if I have to.”

Judith Rosenbaum:
The thing is, the comments of, “It’s no big deal. Boys will be boys,” like that just angers me because it perpetuates the exact culture that allows for that kind of harassment. It puts women somehow in second place. It’s also reverse. If a woman harasses a man, “Just suck it up.” That’s not right. That’s not equality. That’s not justice.

Amy Blackstone:
The solution should not be that the person who’s being victimized sucks it up or leaves their job. I think that’s still a normal…not normal but it’s still a response that we hear a lot. When our current President was on the campaign trail, he was asked what he thought his daughter Ivanka should do if she were harassed.

His response was, “I would hope that she would find another job or another company.” Unfortunately, that is what many women who are harassed do, and I don’t think that that’s the solution.

Susan Gardner:
I think I heard recently, too, a story on NPR talking about when women do leave positions because of harassment that it’s not that they often are going to move into a similar kind of position. You suddenly have to quit because you’ve had enough, or it’s that egregious enough that you have to leave.

You take whatever is available because you need to pay the bills and oftentimes that is a lower paying position.

Amy Blackstone:
Another woman I interviewed had worked as a flight attendant for the first 10 years of her career. As you can imagine, after 10 years in the same job, she’d been doing pretty well for herself, was experiencing ongoing harassment in that job.

Finally left and left to become a hospital concierge, which was a job that she described enjoying but not nearly on the same salary.

Judith Rosenbaum:
There you get punished twice.

Susan Gardner:
I think it’s important too to note that not everybody is in a situation where they can leave a position. It might be that there aren’t other positions or other situations. I think the instances I hear about in my position might be, for example, graduate students who…what does that mean?

I have a graduate student come speak to me about being a year away from graduation, and your entire education is based on your interactions with one faculty member for the most part, and suddenly what do you do? Do you transfer somewhere else and start your Ph.D. all over again?

You try to find a job, and you need that letter of reference because if you don’t have a letter of reference from that faculty member, then it’s suspect. There’s a lot of, “You have to grin and bear it,” or, “Suck it up,” or whatever it might be. Again, what are the long-term consequences of that for those individuals?

For their sleep, for their health, and for their well-being.

Amy Blackstone:
We often think of mobilizing in response to harassment as being about reporting it to your manager, or calling a lawyer, or calling the EEOC, and all of those things are good actions that I think people should take if they’re being harassed.

We sometimes overlook the importance of telling a friend or a family member about your experience, and the benefit of getting support from those people.

I think one positive was that it seemed that many of the folks here on campus who were experiencing harassment were talking with family and friends about it, which also raises the point that we need to not just raise awareness about harassment for the people who are experiencing it, but for those who are supporting people who experience it.

Susan Gardner:
That’s right. That often too is a role that the Rising Tide Center plays, is we just become a place where people can come and talk. That’s been a lot of the work I’ve done.

I’ve definitely seen an increase, even over this year since the MeToo movement of people coming and talking to me. Women in particular but not just women, but saying, “Something has happened to me and I’m wondering what I can do. What can be done about it?”

Part of the work we do is try to point people to the right resources. We’re not there to fix it for them. We’re not there to discipline or do those kinds of things. We’re there to be a resource. We’re there to educate, provide professional development.

Some of the work we do is reach out to departments that might be having some of these issues and to talk to them about ways that we can be thinking about interacting with one another in respectful ways.

We talk about this too with students. While we haven’t surveyed students, we certainly know that these behaviors and experiences happen to students as well as staff.

What can we be doing to improve our departments and the experiences that students are having on campus, in the classroom? Thinking about those one-on-one interactions and sometimes just being aware of the jokes that we’re telling or the kind of assignments we might be discussing in class.

When these things come up over and over and over again, what kind of messages we are sending to students.

Judith Rosenbaum:
I think it’s neat how you just said people come to the Rising Tide Center to talk about these experiences, to seek support and to seek a safe space. What’s really neat is that the MeToo Movement started like that too.

What you see in research on Twitter is that marginalized groups generally take to social media, especially to Twitter, to connect with people like them. Ethnic minorities, sexual minorities take to Twitter, use hashtags to connect with people far outside their social circle to create an online safe space.

Because Twitter is public, what you get is that people outside that community can see these hashtags. A lot of times, those hashtags don’t go anywhere. In the case of say, BlackLivesMatter or MeToo, the world just picked up on it.

I think that’s really awesome. It’s like what you’re doing at the Rising Tide Center is like a small version of what happened with MeToo. That here, we have this online space that served simply as a space for women to say, “Hey, me too.” That’s all they had to say.

They didn’t have to say when or who or where or what. All they had to say was, “Me too.” It just created this avalanche of tweets that made the world sit up and go, “Wow, is it really that bad?” That’s the great example.

For me, Twitter is a fascinating platform because it’s both highly personal. You think you’re just talking to your friends but because it’s public by default, everything you say goes out to the whole world, and so you can garner attention like that.

I thought MeToo is just an excellent example of how something personal can become really big and influential.

Amy Blackstone:
That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about…I’ve been wondering if this moment is going to differ from the other similar moments we’ve had.

In the early ’90s, we had the Clarence Thomas hearings that Anita Hill testified at. The next year was the Year of the Woman and a bunch of women were elected. We thought, “OK, this is the time when something’s going to be done about workplace harassment.”

Awareness was raised but we didn’t see long-term change. We saw another wave of awareness in the late ’90s when Bill Clinton was running for president. There was some talk at that time about whether this is the moment that workplaces change for women.

I’m not sure that we saw as much change as we hoped we would. Now, we’re having that discussion again but one difference is the Twitter stuff and the social media stuff. More voices are being heard, and they’re not stopping.

Judith Rosenbaum:
What’s fascinating is when MeToo gave birth to Time’s Up is you see how a platform like Twitter really serves as a site for collective action.

In my research, what I see is people take to Twitter to connect with others like them, to share experiences, to form a counter-public but like the old school counter-publics, like the feminist consciousness-raising groups in the ’60s.

Ultimately, it’s going to lead to action. That’s also the power of Twitter. You have all these different people coming together.

They can think of various ways to, “What can we do to make change? One of the things we can do is create a fund so that people who may not have the means can now afford to sue for sexual harassment.”

Again, without social media, I don’t know if we would have had the ability to reach out to so many people and connect people who may not feel like they have a voice to people who do have the money and the power to make change.

One of the things I do want to caution for is…like I said, I’m an optimist and we’ve talked about Twitter as providing these great opportunities but it’s also important to be aware that there’s a dark side.

If you’re a female on Twitter, you’re much more likely to be harassed online, to get mansplained to, to be questioned. It’s not this free zone where everybody’s safe and happy, and there’s rainbows and unicorns.

The same culture that causes sexual harassment is prevalent on Twitter. Because you can be completely anonymous on Twitter, it might even be more commonplace there than it is in, say, the workplace. I do want to caution for too much optimism.

Susan Gardner:
The other caution I’d offer is that not everyone is in a situation where they can say, “Me too.”

There are some people, because of the environment in which they’re found or the precariousness of their position, whatever that might be, are not in a safe place that they can do that without fear of retribution, without fear of some other negative consequence. That’s also important to note.

Amy Blackstone:
Is bystander intervention something that you see happening on Twitter?

Judith Rosenbaum:
You do. Sometimes what happens, which just gets me really excited, is when someone tries to mansplain something to a female scientist and other people jump in on the conversation before this person even has a chance to respond. You do see that quite a bit.

You do see people jumping to someone else’s defense. You see that a lot on Twitter. People want to get involved in the conversation. It’s almost as though bystander intervention might be more common.

I don’t have any hard data on this, but just exploratively, I want to say it’s pretty common on Twitter for people to jump in and go, “Excuse me? What? Did you just mansplain her?” Or screenshot a picture of the scientist’s profile and say, “You just mansplained this super famous important person but yeah, you go right ahead.” You do see that a lot more.

Amy Blackstone:
I wonder if that’s a place for us to look as we’re thinking about how to implement bystander intervention in workplaces, look at places like Twitter where it’s happening.

The thing I would do to end sexual harassment is change our entire culture. I’m not going to do that tomorrow but I know that we’re working on it.

Susan Gardner:
I definitely think so. It is awareness raising. A lot of the work that we’ve done with the Rising Tide Center has been to think about the many ways that change can come about. It isn’t just policies, and it isn’t just the surveys, and it isn’t just meetings. There’s all these different layers around which change happens.

It happens certainly at the individual level of people being aware and understanding, “I don’t have to take this anymore, and here are my ways to address it.” It’s also from a supervisor’s standpoint. If we think about in academia, we have department chairs and deans.

What are they doing to help inform and to lay out options for the people who might have those experiences? It is the policies. How they’re worded, how they’re disseminated, but it’s also things like bystander intervention.

What do you do when you see or hear someone doing something? Do you look the other way? Do you say something?

There’s ways that we can intervene when we see these things happening. The more we do that, the people who are the serial harassers, because more often than not, it’s the same individual who might be perpetuating these crimes and it’s the same for sexual assault.

It’s about 4 percent of the people who are repeat offenders. That if those people start to see this isn’t OK, this isn’t going to be acceptable, and other people aren’t going to put up with it. A lot of that behavior could stop.

Amy Blackstone:
Yeah, I agree. I think bystander intervention is key. I think that is becoming part of our conversation around solutions, but for a long time, solutions were focused, I think, too heavily on the targets of harassment. What can you do to avoid being harassed.

Judith Rosenbaum:
I think that MeToo movement has shown that we need to listen and figure out how the younger generations communicate and tap into that. Also recognize that a lot of training or educating can come from letting people share.

I think the MeToo movement was an eye opener for a lot of people who had no idea that any of this was going on. You give victims a chance to share, and that sharing enables change. I think that openness, let’s all talk about what happened. Let’s not be cagey about it.

“Well, one day,” no, own it. If we’re willing to talk about it as a society, I think that change will come. The trick is momentum, because the thing is something pops up and it goes away too.

A couple years ago, we had the YesAllWomen NotAllMen movement on Twitter. The idea that, yes, all women are victims of sexual harassment, that doesn’t mean all men are assailants. It just went away. It had a little spike about three, four years ago, and it just never resonated.

I think MeToo resonated. We saw it with the firing of all these people in the movie industry. For now, we’re seeing more traction. It’ll be interesting to see if it keeps up. I think if it stays a theme through like the current upcoming election, then I think it could have more impact than what we saw in the ’90s.

Amy Blackstone:
Yeah. Well, we didn’t have these platforms then.

Susan Gardner:
Yeah, and the confluence of world and societal events, I think, has a lot to do with these things. I think about even back in the fall, we have an annual march on campus around Take Back the Night. This happens on most college campuses throughout the United States.

To see the momentum this year around that topic, given what’s going on with our government, given what’s going on in society and popular media, just wondering if one of those things went away, would we have seen standing room only for Take Back the Night?

Would we have seen the number of people coming forward to talk in my office? Yeah, those things do play an influential role.

Judith Rosenbaum:
What you just see is you see this almost a perfect storm. You see aresonance between, like you said, what’s happening in society at large with the government, what people are experiencing, and what’s being said on Twitter.

In all fairness, MeToo is a really catchy hashtag. All I have to say is MeToo and you all know immediately what I’m talking about, and that matters. The same applies to other really successful movements too, like BlackLivesMatter, for instance. It came at the right time. It found a platform. It resonated in what’s going on in the world.

You have this movement that I think will carry on, I hope, to make real change. If I hear that with the turnout for Take Back the Night, the younger people are involved and social media is their way of communicating.

They get on Snap, on Twitter, on Instagram, and so if younger people can get involved, if they can go to the voting booth, voting polls, whatever, [laughs] then we might actually see change. I’m very much an optimist at heart.

Amy Blackstone: