Stop Violence Against Women
Sexual Harassment





3. Causes of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is, above all, a manifestation of power relations – women are much more likely to be victims of sexual harassment precisely because they more often than men lack power, are in more vulnerable and insecure positions, lack self confidence, or have been socialized to suffer in silence.  In order to understand why women endure the vast majority of sexual harassment, it is important to look at some of the underlying causes of this phenomenon.

Violence and Male Self-Perception

The relationship between the sexes in many countries around the world includes a considerable amount of violence against women.  Data about the United States, for example, indicate that one out of every ten women are raped or sexually assaulted during their lives, while more than half of all women living with men have experienced a battering or similar incident of domestic violence.

Violence by men against women exists in the workplace, as it does in other settings.  Some scholars, such as Susan Faludi, the author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, suggest that male hostility toward women in the workplace is closely connected to male attitudes about the “proper” role of a man in society.  Surveys on men’s perception of masculinity, carried out in the U.S., for example, indicate that the leading definition of masculinity is being “a good provider for his family.”  Ms. Faludi concludes that some men perceive the “feminist drive for economic equality” as a threat to their traditional role.  Thus, sexual harassment is a form of violence perceived as self-protection.

The problem of sexual harassment relates to the roles which are attributed to men and women in social and economic life, which, in turn, directly or indirectly, affects women’s positions in the labor market.

The Economics of Women’s Work

Focusing on the economics of men's work and women's work exposes sexual harassment as a way for the men who harass women to express their resentment and try to reassert control when they view women as their economic competitors

Despite impediments women face in obtaining employment, there has been a massive influx of women into the labor force in the 1960s and 1970s, not only in the U.S., but on a global scale.  Women's entry into the workforce has been prompted by necessity, since many families cannot make ends meet if the wife and husband do not both work full-time. 

Furthermore, the number of single-parent families headed by women in growing.  There are a large number of families in which a woman is the sole means of support.  Data from the U.S. indicate that between 1980 and 1990, the number of female-headed families increased by 27%.  By 1997, two out of every five working women were the sole head of their households, and within that group, more than one-quarter had dependent children.  (Source: The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization, [AFL-CIO] Working Women's Department).

This new and sudden influx of women into the labor force brought about two simultaneous, but seemingly opposite reactions to women at work.  On one hand, some men resented female employees and perceived them as a threat in traditionally male dominated work environments.  In these cases the women were subject to overt discrimination, that is, they received lesser-valued job assignments, lack of promotions, lower pay, and sexual harassment to cause embarrassment and humiliation. 

The second reaction was to exploit the presence of women and make sexual favors and submission to sexual behaviors conditions of employment, that is to keep from being fired, demoted, or otherwise adversely affected at work.  Both are forms of sexual harassment

Discrimination as a Form Of Workplace Control

Catherine MacKinnon, author of Sexual Harassment of Working Women, was the first legal scholar to draw attention to the connection between sex discrimination and sexual harassment:

... [W]omen tend to be in low-ranking positions, dependant upon the approval and goodwill of male [superiors] for hiring, retention and advancement. Being at the mercy of male superiors adds direct economic clout to male secual demands.... It also deprives women of material security and independence which could help make resistance to unreasonable job pressures practical ...

... [S]exual harassment of women can occur largely because women occupy inferior job positions and job roles; at the same time, sexual harassment works to keep women in such positions.

If sex discrimination forces women into lower-paying jobs, sexual harassment helps keep them there.  This may not be the intention of the harasser in every instance, but it is often the effect.

Seen in this context, male workers who harass a woman on the job are doing more than annoying her.  They are reminding her of her vulnerability, creating tensions that make her job more difficult and making her hesitant to seek higher paying jobs where she may perceive the tension as even greater.  In short, sexual harassment creates a climate of intimidation and repression.  A woman who is the target of sexual harassment often goes through the same process of victimization as one who has suffered rape, battering or other gender-related crimes- frequently blaming herself and doubting her own self-worth.

Women employed in fields that are traditionally considered “ woman's work”, such as waitresses and secretaries, are often given menial, degrading tasks.  They are often called demeaning names, and they are led to believe that a certain amount of male domination and sexism is normal.  All of this reinforces the idea that women workers are of little value in the workplace.  Women who try to break into traditionally all-male work, such as construction jobs, medicine or investment banking, often suffer even more intense harassment clearly aimed at forcing them to leave.

Thus sexual harassment often accomplishes informally what laws against sex-based discrimination theoretically prohibit: gender-based requirements for a job.  A woman subjected to sexual harassment endures pressure, degradation or hostility that her male co-workers don't have to endure- making it just that much harder to compete for the job and for advancement.

Excerpted from: Sexual Harassment On The Job: What It Is & How To Stop It (4th Ed.), by William Petrocelli, Barbara Kate Repa.

| Home | Links | Contact |

Copyright © 2003 Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights.
Permission is granted to use this material for non-commercial purposes. Please use proper attribution.