Define to Defeat: Perceptions of Sexual Harassment

If we only define “Sexual Harassment” in the way we have until now, we will never be able to defeat it.

Photo by Jimmy Dean on Unsplash

Ever since the #MeToo movement we have come to understand what sexual harassment is, how to define it. It’s a big male power, owning a big company, taking advantage of less powerful women by asking them for sexual favours, right? Well, the reality is a bit more complex than that. And a part of the reason why, is because sexual harassment is so difficult to define.

At Metta Space, that is one of our big missions: Trying to define what sexual harassment is. Because once we have done that, we believe that it is easier to try and find more specific ways of how to prevent, combat, and eventually eradicate sexual harassment: our second mission here at Metta Space.

Don’t get us wrong, sexual harassment can definitely be someone asking you for sexual favours in exchange for a promotion or job. But it can also range from staring or leering at your body, to commenting on your physical appearance in an inappropriate way. It ranges from touching someone at the office, to sending an unsolicited sexual picture on Slack. It ranges from commenting on someone’s intellectual capacity based on gender during working hours, to messaging an inappropriate text outside of office hours.

But the truth is, all these instances of sexual harassment do not matter, if the working environment and we as society, don’t define them as sexual harassment. Because if we don’t define them as such, they don’t get classified as such. And that leads to the possibility of non-reporting. So, knowing how important correct definitions and classifications are, we wanted to understand how far along we’ve come to defining sexual harassment in the perceptions of our society.

A little survey, a big result

In order to do this, we asked our community to answer a survey to help us understand what they perceive as sexual harassment. And the community answered — 579 people to be exact. Our findings confirmed what we already believed: no homogenous perception of sexual harassment exists when we ask a range of people to define it. Especially not between men and women. And like it or not, these demographic differences matter.

Responses to defining what categorises as sexual harassment
Responses to defining what categorises as sexual harassment
Responses to what categorises as sexual harassment

But let’s start by looking at the general ways in which people perceive sexual harassment. That is to say, what kind of acts do the majority of people think should be categorised as sexual harassment?

It was no surprise to us that the more “black and white” categories, such as:

  • pressure to have a sexual relationship
  • kissing or touching someone without consent
  • sharing private sexual photos

had an average positive response rate (how many people said “yes, this is sexual harassment”) of 91.7%. Meanwhile, categories in the “grey area”, such as:

  • your body being stared or leered at
  • inappropriate online communication
  • circulation of sexual rumours
  • remarks about your intellectual capability based on gender

only had a positive response rate of 57.6%. The divergence between the results in the “black and white” vs. “grey area” categoties shows us that acts which might have more of an “obvious” sexual intent (physical touching, sending pictures of one’s genitals) and which have been prosecuted in the #MeToo movement, are much more easily recognised by the majority, as sexual harassment.

Why Gender Matters

Yet, “grey area” acts which many people, especially women, actually experience more on a daily basis (your body being stared at, sexist remarks), are not as obviously recognisable to everyone as sexual harassment.

Furthermore, we saw that a gendered difference in the responses to the categories in this exact “grey area”, those which are often subtly experienced on a daily basis, exists. Out of that 57.6% who did check these off as sexual harassment, 72% of women gave a positive response to these categories versus only 53% of men. That fact alone conveys that gender does matter when we try to define sexual harassment.

Responses to whether they ever experienced any kind of sexual harassment at work or university

Moreover, it shows us that the fact of having experienced sexual harassment — especially different types of it — can change the way you perceive its definition, or what should be included within it. We know this, because we also asked our respondents whether they had ever experienced sexual harassment, and almost half (47%) said they had. But zoom in on those numbers and we can differentiate that only 21% of men had experienced it, compared to 57% of all female respondents. Thus, the fact that over double the amount of women to men experienced sexual harassment, might explain the disparity in their responses to their definitions of sexual harassment.

We believe that this correlation is significant and needs to be highlighted. Because it shows us that there really is something to systemic subjugation and how we define it. That is to say, we are more likely to define racism in a different way, if we have experienced it due to the colour of our skin. We are more likely to define sexism in a different way, if we have experienced it due to our identity as a woman. We are more likely to define sexual harassment in a different way, if we have experienced it due to no other reason than working in an indecent, unsafe and toxic work environment.

Therefore, we need to take a step back, way back, if we want to start combatting and eradicating sexual harassment. We need to step all the way back to our very definition of it, and understand if we are truly defining it correctly. Should we not eliminate our own prejudice and perceptions of this definition? Should we include those who have experienced sexual harassment into the discussion? Should we use the advances of modern technology to eliminate bias and process a more accurate definition? We believe the answers to all these questions are yes. We believe that only by defining sexual harassment properly can we really defeat sexual harassment.

Written 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