#BLM Meets Sexual Harassment: Why Intersectionality is Imperative

In celebration of Black History Month, we wanted to dive into how intersectionality has affected sexual harassment, especially for women of colour.

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

For those who may not know, intersectionality is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage”.

That’s an academic way of saying while we may all face some discrimination at some point, the discrimination that is faced by white women is not the same as that faced by Black women, Latinx women, Asian women, or Trans women.

Their experiences will be intersected by another discriminatory factor. Despite the fact that intersectionality is being discussed in feminism, creating a more inclusive space for all, race is largely absent when talking about the implications of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is the creation of a toxic work environment due to implicit or explicit overtones. A more nuanced approach to this would be understanding that sexual harassment is a tool driven to maintain power or dominance; it is derived from respect in the workplace.

A recent Harvard Business Review survey found that 34% of female employees have been sexually harassed by a colleague. While we typically think of sexual harassment as the hierarchical superior boss taking advantage of a subordinate, 1 in 4 Black women reported that their perpetrator was a more junior colleague.

The respect that is given to more senior white women is not reciprocated towards Black women. And while recognizing that sexual harassment happens to both genders, with only 6% of men report being sexually harassed, black men are more likely to have been sexually harassed by a colleague than white men (20% vs 13%).

When encouraging any person to report their sexual harassment, you must make sure your approach is intersectional otherwise you may be leaving behind some of the most vulnerable staff members.

With the rise of the #MeToo (2017) and #BlackLivesMatter (2013 with more relevance gained in 2020) movements, these issues have been prominent so our psyches, that it is easy for us to think this is a new issue.

It is not.

Using the public Equal Employment Opportunity Commission database, there seems to be a decrease in sexual harassment claims from 1997 to 2016 which has not been equitable across all races.

The number of claims by white women has been steadily decreasing, while the rates for Black women have maintained at the same pace. And don’t get me wrong — I am not taking away from the win that reporting systems are working and that the levels have begun to decrease.

However, this trend shows us the shift in reasons and actions of harassment, rather than the changes in the willingness to report. In 1996, Black women were 1.7 times as likely as white women to report sexual harassment whereas in 2016, they were 3.8 times as likely to do so.

This highlights another reason for the importance of intersectionality in our analysis of harassment and of gender. In this case, there has been a shift, albeit not complete, from the harassment of white women to the harassment of Black women.

The decline in sexual harassment has disproportionally benefited white women, who are much less likely to experience sexual harassment than Black women.

Harassers and abusers are aware of the power relationships in workplaces. Harassment is all power display, and they have decided to shift the focus of their attacks towards more vulnerable women in their workplaces.

As we know, many factors go through the target’s head when they make their decision to report or not to report their sexual harassment complaints. For all women, but especially women of colour, there can be a cultural factor for deterring women to report: submissiveness in response to machismo, taboos on discussing sexual natures, concerns about how their community will perceive them as a victim, and the impulse to deny harassment when the harasser is from the community of colour themselves, as to not make the whole community look bad or make the stereotypes real.

When analyzing it from an abuser’s perspective, stereotypes play a massive role in the message that women of colour have. Latinx women are “hot-blooded”. Black women are “jezebels”. Asian women are “submissive and exotic”.

These stereotypes all boil down to the same message that women of colour are promiscuous, sexual beings and that sexual harassment is inevitable for them. Gender and race are so inexplicitly linked, especially when it comes to harassment, that we need to use intersectionality to craft sexual harassment policies that embrace the intersectional differences of women to protect all targets.

And our system is just not there yet. When you couple that with the overall distrust that women have in which their reports will make a difference, how can we have women of colour trust that their voice will make a difference when all these workplaces and other institutions have been notorious for letting them down and leaving them behind?

Supporting #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter means that we actively stop sidelining the stories and recognize that intersectionality is crucial for combatting, preventing, and eradicating sexual harassment for all, regardless of gender or race.

Written By: Apollina “Polly” Kyle, Research Ambassador at Metta Space

Edited By: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of Research & Development at Metta Space

A Deep Tech B2B platform on a mission to eradicate sexual harassment from the workplace — www.metta-space.com