With sexual harassment stories topping the news almost nightly, human resource departments are proactively seeking to create cultures free of what we are coming to know as “me too moments.” The best training in the world may not stop the type of serial predictors that have dominated the headlines.
Yet, there are insights from social scientific research that might be valuable in making the workplace a more comfortable environment. Numerous studies have found that men appear to be more likely to misinterpret women as being flirtatious when they are simply being friendly. Evidence of this is not just coming from academia either. A grocery chain had to reevaluate its customer greeting program when female workers reported the store’s policy of welcoming customers with enthusiasm resulted in unappreciated proposals in the parking lot. Before we delve into how this information can be helpful, lets clearly establish inappropriate takeaways from it:
- It is not a call for women to change the way they do things. Historically, women have been blamed for provoking such encounters. Women have the right to be warm, kind and authentic without being misunderstood.
- It is not an excuse for bad behavior.
- It is not meant to make men look foolish, vain or egotistical.
This last point is especially important. Bloggers have had a field day with such studies, playfully proclaiming “Men Can’t Help But Think We’re All Flirting With Them.” While such headlines may be humorous, they are far from helpful. Misinterpreting female motives is a documented mistake that many (not all) men are prone to making. Perhaps recognizing this tendency can help them reinterpret such situations for more accurate perceptions. A little self-awareness can go a long way. Perhaps an internal dialogue is in order when men are tempted to assume that a female colleague is flirting with them. Yes, gentlemen, I am asking you to talk to yourselves:
- Acknowledge your internal reactions.
- Remind yourselves that statistically you have a high probability of being incorrect.
- Actively redefine the situation in order to realize that she is being a caring co-worker, a team player or simply a nice person.
It is important for men to raise their consciousness even when they do not have the slightest intention of behaving inappropriately. I wonder how familiar some variation of this scenario sounds to other women? You are introduced to a new co-worker. Knowing how stressful the first day can be, you give him your very best welcome aboard, I am on your side smile. He immediately takes a step back and mentions his wife and children 10 times in the next 5 minutes. While his loyalty to his family is commendable and he can not be faulted for it, it is extremely embarrassing to have your good will be misconstrued in such a way. It makes for an awkward environment. Some women may overcompensate by becoming aloof, shunning social occasions that are critical to networking or avoiding questions whose answers are necessary for proper job performance. There can be collateral damage to careers even when no one would dream of violating professional boundaries.
Power adds another layer of complexity to these dynamics, that all leaders should be cognizant of. When you are the boss, you influence lives. Subordinates will pay you deference. They will laugh at your jokes, pretend your suggestions are brilliant and go out of their way to be helpful. Good teachers learn this quickly. Those students who get blue ribbons in syphocancy are just lobbying for better grades. Wise educators are able to discern how others feel towards them as individuals versus the roles that they play. Being nice to a superior is about self-preservation, and it is critical all those entrusted with authority understand this. While most of us know it on an intellectual level, reminding ourselves now and again in a way that helps us truly internalize it is a prudent practice.
Is awareness alone the panaceas to prevent sexual harassment? Certainly not. As already mentioned, it will do little to curtail those who compulsively abuse their power just as road signs rarely stop drivers who do not believe the rules apply to them. But most people are not pathological predators beyond redemption! Most are decent human beings trying to do the best they can in a world full of ever changing norms.
There is no one quick fix to this multifaceted problem. Yet, if men can acknowledge that they are vulnerable to misinterpreting female behavior, it just may have some impact in preventing those horribly awkward situations we would all like to avoid. We also need to talk about this much more openly than we do, to co-create solutions with honest conversations. Perhaps the more dialogue we can encourage, the fewer me too moments we will have to recover from.
Sherie Sanders is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.