According to Some, I May Be a Sexual Harasser

Have you ever sexually harassed anyone at work? What does sexual harassment look like to you?

Technically I have, I guess, sexually harassed coworkers at one former company. From asking my male boss if I could get corporate reimbursement for sex toys if those items were purchased under the guise of networking, to trying to coerce my male coworker into doing a photoshoot at the office that he thought was going to be professional, but in reality I (along with my boss and another male officemate) planned to bind him with pink furry handcuffs, cover his mouth with Hello Kitty duct tape, and pose him getting spanked with a pink riding crop. (Unfortunately, he became too suspicious and refused to participate.)

The work environment that allowed such shenanigans was unique. When I joined that company, it was more like a frat house and there was much camaraderie among the mostly-male peers. They were the most inappropriate group I've ever worked with and I loved it!

What made the situation unique is that we all appreciated a good prank, an offbeat sense of humor, and we weren't easily offended. We knew when to be professional and when to joke around. And I never once felt unsafe or bullied or harassed by my male coworkers. Once they saw that I could match whatever they threw out, they treated me like one of the guys -- a gesture for which I will always be grateful.

The playful antics in that office probably wouldn't go over well in a larger corporate structure, or any place of business that employed people with ultra conservative personalities. I certainly understand why sexual harassment policies are in place. The liability for employers, especially corporations with deep pockets, is tremendous.

I do wonder, however, if the litigious fear instilled in us by a politically correct work world will have unintended consequences. Will men feel so self conscious that they will avoid interacting with females in business?

As someone who has been in the financial industry for years, I can confidently say that success in business relies on building and maintaining relationships, and that people do business with those they like. If we are all work and no play, I think that presents a barrier to forging strong business relationships. Like a generic brand of coffee, we can be easily replaced and forgotten. 

Will the sexual harassment claims that dominate the daily news have negative ramifications for women in the workforce? Don't get me wrong, I am fully supportive of the public outing and legal proceedings against men like Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein who was unquestionably abusive and a sexual predator. Those men should never be allowed to thrive in any career field.

Yet, on the same hand, we all know people who get offended at the slightest remark. They are apt to make complaints with human resources. I once had a male coworker who came uninvited into my office while two other women and I were concluding a talk about our childbirth experiences. Due to the anatomical nature of the discussion, it was not a conversation any of us would have initiated in mixed company, but the male coworker waltzed in as one of the women was finishing her story. As soon as she stopped speaking, he said, "I can file a sexual harassment claim on all of you. That made me uncomfortable."

Sadly, he wasn't joking. And we all have probably worked with or are currently working with somebody just like him. That type of person contributes to a tense work atmosphere where you're constantly walking on eggshells for fear of being drawn into a human resources nightmare that would jeopardize your job and reputation. The easily offended type of person exists in both genders.

Men bond through activities, so women are already at a disadvantage in the professional world. How many wives or girlfriends would be happy with their man regularly going to lunch, playing golf, going after work to happy hour, or traveling with his female coworker? What if that coworker is attractive and single? Yet, engaging in those activities with a fellow hetero male coworker wouldn't ignite the same concerns.

In addition to receiving pushback from significant others, opposite gender friendships at your workplace can give the appearance of romantic leanings, which could be a detriment to your career aspirations, not to mention possibly costing you your job if you appear in violation of company fraternization policies. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand why men may try to avoid those pitfalls altogether by forgoing with female business associates the same relationship-building activities he freely does with his male work peers unabated.

Men and women are different. We can strive for equality, but I think we'd be better served to seek out equitable understanding of our gender disparity. If we become too rigid in political correctness, we risk creating a bigger isolationist bubble between the sexes in the workforce. I don't think we can ignore biology and pretend it doesn't exist during business hours. When you consider that in 2016 women represented 46.8% of the US labor force (1), yet only 20.2% of Fortune 500 board seats were occupied by women (2), and the women holding the position of CEO at S&P 500 companies was a paltry 5.2% (3), then you've got to wonder if the politically correct workplace is on the right track.

I'm not here to determine where anyone else's boundaries should be. I'm only saying that it isn't realistic to think we can create a truly gender-free workplace, and that the politically correct attempt to do so may have the unintended consequence of gender segregation that could limit a woman's success in her chosen occupation. I think both sexes want to be treated fairly, and women want the security of knowing they aren't being sexually targeted at work, while men want the security of knowing they won't be reported to HR if they compliment an officemate on her shoes. (Yes, it has happened.)

Personally, in my adult life I have always worked in environments that were predominantly male. As a result, I may have a high tolerance level for gender dissimilarities. I don't expect men to behave like women. I do think men are prone to sexualizing more people and situations than women are. If I had the testosterone levels of a man, perhaps I would do the same. That being said, both genders need to utilize commonsense in the workplace. I can laugh at most things, but I would not be comfortable if anyone related to me in business tried to touch me, date me, or make regular derogatory comments about my gender. Other than that, I am fairly accommodating.

I began with a recounting of "technical" sexual harassment during my time with a former employer and I will end with the same...

As I was leaving the office one evening, I walked by my coworker's open door and saw him sitting in front of his computer with another male colleague peering intently over his shoulder at the monitor. In jest I quipped, "What's so interesting? Are you watching porn?"

Much to my surprise, my coworker then tilted his computer monitor towards me, giving me an unobstructed view of a variety of tits dotting the screen. I wasn't shocked that they were looking at boobery, but I was taken off guard that he was able to access porn on a work computer. After all, the company filter had disallowed me access numerous times in the past to legitimate business articles. Yet here he was worshipping at the altar of areolae. 

He explained that they were trying to decide if a particular pair of mammaries were real or not. Then he asked my opinion, which I freely gave. Before I left, I told my coworker that he shouldn't waste time looking at virtual boobs when his wife was home with a set he actually had the possibility of touching. Because that reasoning would have been difficult to argue with, he didn't try.

But that demonstrates the distinct differences between men and women. My coworkers weren't lecherous perverts. Who knows why they were ogling tits at the office. Did it offend me? No. Those weren't my tits on the screen, plus I in no way felt as if I were being sexualized because of their online breastcapades. What some women may interpret as overtly sexual may not be from the man's viewpoint.

With different men in a different work setting, however, I could have felt highly disturbed by that exchange. Because I knew my coworkers and trusted them, it made all the difference in my response.  And contrary to politically correct wisdom, my male coworkers treating me like one of the guys made me much happier. It was the opposite of a hostile work environment. I developed sincere friendships without the awkwardness typically associated with opposite gender office politics. 

Finally, I have to say that I'm lucky to have worked with so many men who have been almost universally respectful of me and my boundaries. There will always be sexual predators in every walk of life and we cannot allow them to cause harm to others, but I hope commonsense will prevail when opposite genders interact in business. Although some people may be appalled that my coworkers were looking at porn boobs at the office, I can honestly say that those men have been genuine friends to me and I still feel that I could rely on them if I ever needed anything, as they could rely upon me in a likewise fashion. I doubt that the same sense of camaraderie between us would have developed under a strict, politically correct office culture like the one held up as the shining example in our human resources' employee manual.

  

 

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(1) Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 3: Employment Status of the Civilian Noninstitutional Population by Age, Sex, and Race,” Current Population Survey, Household Data Annual Averages 2016 (2017). 

(2) (Deloitte and Alliance for Board Diversity, Missing Pieces Report: The 2016 Board Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards (2017).) 

(3) Catalyst, Women CEOS of the S&P 500 (2017).