Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Sexual harassment at work motivation
What motivates sexual harassment at work and what can be done about it?
Susie has been recently promoted in her team and is feeling like she is making great strides professionally. However, Susie wasn't the only person up for the promotion,Bob, who now works under her, was also up for consideration. In a team meeting Susie presents a new idea to help streamline how they work Bob laughs at her suggestion saying "I guess you stocked up on those instead of brains huh?" while gesturing to Susie's chest. Susie immediately feels humiliated and stops presenting her idea. In fact, she is so hurt so stops the meeting altogether.
Instances of sexual harassment in the workplace lead to a toxic work environment; but what motivates perpetrators to sexually harass colleagues? This chapter visits the idea of sexual harassment as an expression of evolutionary motives; viewing the perpetrator as wishing to continue their genetic legacy. Secondly we will understand sexual harassment as a response to a violation of gender norms and disruption to having the implicit motive of power satisfied. Thirdly, we will explore why perpetrators in the day and age of "Me Too" continue to sexually harass through Albert Bandura's theory of social cognition and self regulation. Finally we will seek to discover if there are steps workplaces can take to mitigate instances of sexual harassment and how those steps relate to the above theories.
What is sexual harassment?Edit
Sexual harassment in the workplace has long been an issue and something that organisations have been trying to address and mitigate. For the purposes of this chapter sexual harassment is defined as:
"behaviour characterized by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social situation."
Harassment can take many forms such as verbal, gestural, gendered comments, multimedia and sexual advances. Workplaces which report high levels of sexual harassment tend to have lower productivity, less collegiality and have a high turnover of staff, typically of female staff (Page, 2015). In short, a culture of sexual harassment does not just affect those being harassed but also all staff and the workplace output.
Since the evolution of the “Me Too” movement of 2016 the question of what constitutes sexual harassment has been at the forefront of conversations in the area. Important in the above definition is the term unwanted. Romantic workplace relationships are not at all uncommon but they are based on mutual attraction (Pierce et al, 2000). Workplace sexual harassment is rarely romantically motivated, it is not simply one person expressing to another sexual desire; it is an aggressive act that is usually hostile in motivation. Often the perpetrator is attempting to assert dominance and power or seeking to fulfil a goal. The perpetrator has used sexual harassment previously or has seen it used, in order to get what they want and the behaviour is reinforced by the reaction of the victim (Page et al, 2015) as well as inaction of those around them (Diekman et al 2013).
More often than not, victims of sexual harassment are women or people assigned female at birth, and the aggressors are cisgendered heterosexual men (Mellon, 2013), (Rawski et al, 2018). That is not to say that men cannot be the victims of sexual harassment; in workplaces that are hyper masculine such as the police or armed forces they often are (Saunders et al, 2013). This is also not to say that women cannot be perpetrators of sexual harassment, as there are instances of this, however the focus for this chapter will be on cisgendered heterosexual men as perpetrators.
- True or false sexual harassment is a mutually beneficial and felt expression of romantic desires?
- True or false: men cannot be victims of sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment motivationEdit
When viewed from an evolutionary and instinctual standpoint, sexual harassment can be easily understood. Traditionally the male is the sex for whom successful breeding is passing on their genetics to as many healthy partners as possible (Page et al, 2015). This line of reasoning follows a very Darwinian logic. As men also tend to be more sexually aggressive, hostility in sexual advances in the workplace could also be explained as evolutionarily motivated. In this context sexual harassment can be explained away as men being motivated by their primal drive to find successful breeding partners. It is something that cannot be helped and could even be considered as a healthy behaviour. This viewpoint, however, ignores the social context in which the behaviour occurs and the violation of social norms stemming from the behaviour. Similarly in this reading men are rendered as little more than animals, incapable of overcoming their base urges.
As a reaction to disruption of traditional gender roles and power seekingEdit
One theory on why people sexually harass is more aligned with the implicit motivation of power and as well as behaviouralist theory of psychology. Perpetrators have learnt that if they sexually harass in the workplace, they are not likely to receive punishment from management, and are instead often rewarded and viewed as intimidating and powerful.
An implicit motive is one which identifies goals, and therefore drives behaviour without a person being necessarily cognisant of it (Wiley, 2022). Not everyone has the same implicit motives and some people will place more value on one implicit motive than another (Wiley, 2022). An implicit motive that reoccurs in those who sexually harass is to seek power over other people; when an individual has a high power motivation, most actions they take have the end goal of wanting to have influence over others in their lives (Wiley, 2022). Sometimes this can manifest in behaviours like bullying and harassment, particularly if the person feels that the balance of power is shifting out of their favour.
Sexual harassment is often motivated by a male person perceiving a gendered power imbalance; they no longer feel that they are the the dominant gender and therefore use sexual harassment as means to intimidate and regain power. Traditionally, in western society, women are viewed as the "weaker" sex, more fit for subservient roles such as secretary instead of boss or nurse instead of doctor. Men, on the other hand, have historically been viewed as leaders, naturally more adept at being in control. When women then step out of the traditional role into one of authority, particularly over men, the norms of gender roles are upset. This is one reason why Hugh Saunders and colleagues found that levels of harassment can be quite high in traditionally masculine workplaces (2013). Harassment commonly occurs in instances where the female is in a position of power or in a position that could threaten the power of the perpetrator (Mellon, et al, 2013). Perpetrators who engage in sexual harassment for these reasons tend to not be confident in their own masculinity, and have their behaviour reinforced by the humiliated suffering of their target (Mellon et al, 2013).
This attempt to redress a gender imbalance is then driven by a need to regain power. A person with a strong implicit motivation for power may react negatively to any perceived threat to their status as a powerful person, such as a woman being in charge. They may see a threat to gender roles within the workplace as a direct threat to their own status. Therefore, they must humiliate them through sexual harassment to “[put]them in their place”. By sexually harassing the target, the target is made to feel objectified and less than human, and therefore underserving of the power they may have (Brassel et al, 2019). The humiliation causes the target to withdraw, and the perpetrator perceives the gender roles to be restored, and their position to have been reasserted.
- What role does the traditional view of gender play in sexual harassment?
- What is an implicit motivator?
Moral dysregulation of perpetratorsEdit
Since the “Me Too” movement gaining traction, western culture at large knows and understands that sexual harassment is an abhorrent behaviour. It is illegal as well as frowned upon to the point where public figures who have been found to have sexually harassed or indeed assaulted their female colleagues have been publicly “called out” and “cancelled”. To be cancelled is for a perpetrator of misconduct (sometimes but not always sexual in nature) to have their behaviour recounted and published in places such as on social media sites like Twitter and as a result support of their career is withdrawn (Clark, 2020). Often those calling out the behaviour have evidence (known as "receipts") in the form of either videos of the behaviour (taken with or without the perpetrators knowledge) or screen shots of communications. The post then gains attention through interaction and cross posting to other media sites, occasionally with other victims of the perpetrator making their own posts or comments to support which adds credibility as well as pressure on the perpetrator.
The goal of publicly calling out is to get as much attention to perpetrators behaviours as possible so that people in their field and beyond will not work with or employ them as they will also risk personal suffering to either their image or business income. Whether or not cancel culture has been successful is explored below with the case study of American comedian Louis CK.
In the day and age of smartphones and the present likelihood of any person with smartphone recording at any point also heightens the likelihood of a perpetrator of sexual harassment being caught red-handed. Not only are perpetrators at risk of having video evidence of their behaviour they are also at risk of having those videos uploaded to platforms such as TikTok and other users working to identify them and important information workplace to report the behaviour directly to them. People have been fired from their jobs through such actions.
Case Study: Louis CK
American comedian Louis CK had one of the earliest and most public “cancellation” of his career as a part of the “Me Too” movement. CK’s career was on the upward trajectory in the mid 2015s: with several successful live shows including one about to commence touring, his own successful sitcom as well as multiple guest spots on some of the most popular comedy shows such as Parks and Rec and Saturday Night Liveit seemed he was destined for success. However, in mid-2017 several of CK’s former partners came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct CK committed while in relationships with him. CK himself later admitted that the accusations were all true (CK, 2017).
While these actions did not happen in the workplace; the ramifications of them echoed into his very successful career. Seemingly overnight CK had his sitcom and soon to be released movie cancelled and his upcoming tour delayed indefinitely. CK went from being a comedy darling to the industry pariah, and as a part of his apology he pledge to step away from the industry for a few years to reflect on and correct his behaviour (CK, 2017).
This story to the members of the “Me Too” movement, seemed like a success. It seemed like men who were using their power to sexually harass and assault women both in the entertainment workplace and in home would be held to account. These perpetrators, no matter how famous, would face justice and no longer be allowed to succeed in the workplace due to their own actions. It seemed like the social pressure from the movement, felt around the world, was going to affect positive change.
For those who felt the movement was going too far, this was an example of a man losing his career because of a mistake which he had apologised for. Cries ofbut what is sexual harassment called out. It seemed like an invisible line of what is and is not acceptable had been drawn by women and now men were afraid to show any affection to them for fear of having their career ruined like CK.
But was Louis CK’s career ruined by the surfacing of this scandal and his subsequent banishment from Hollywood? At the time with the loss of his shows it certainly seemed like it was. However less than one year later in 2018 Louis CK returned to stand-up comedy, since then except for COVID interruptions, he has returned to the industry. Not only that but he has once again won awards for his work (Martin, 2022). Did Louis CK’s punishment of his career being somewhat derailed fit the crimes he committed; was it too much or was it not enough? And was he actually “cancelled” or did companies rightfully separate from someone who had committed sexual misconduct?
With such a high risk of being caught and fired why is sexual harassment still so prevalent in workplaces?
According Albert Bandura's theory it could be because there is a malfunction in a perpetrators self regulation that causes them to continue this behaviour despite knowing it to be wrong (Page et al, 2015). Albert Bandura was a Canadian-American Psychologist who is well known for social cognitive theory as well as his work in self-efficacy. He believed that behaviour is the result of social learning (Bandura, 1989). That is a person learns how to behave by watching other interacting and the results certain behaviours can yield. As a child the subjects we observe are our caregivers (parents or guardians) we learn to get what we want through trying different behaviours which may be reinforced or punished by the caregivers. For example, a hungry baby might cry loudly for attention, the parent hearing this sound attends to the baby . This baby has learnt that the behaviour (crying) can be rewarded with attention reinforcing that behaviour.
It is important to this discussion to understand what a reinforcer or a punisher is; typically a punishment is seen as something negative, for example a parent taking away an electronic device from a child who receives poor grades. This, however, is only partially true; in psychology a punisher is something that is used to try to stop a behaviour from occurring again (Reeve, 2018). An example of this is a person paying a fine because they were speeding, this example is known as a negative punishment because it is removing something desirable (money) to discourage the person from speeding again (Reeve, 2018). A positive punishment is adding something undesirable to discourage behaviour, for example the demerit points added to the above person's drivers license for the same crime. A reinforcer on the other hand is something that is used to promote behaviour like our parent paying attention to us when we cried as babies (positive) or if a parent excuses a child from their chores after helping out and elderly neighbour (negative) (Reeve, 2018). In the case of both punishment and reinforcement the word negative is to remove something and the word positive is to add in something.
As we get older, we begin to form cognitions about the world around us and form plans in order to achieve our goals (Bandura, 1999). An important part of these cognitions includes self regulation which could be described as our moral imperative; are our actions aligning with what is acceptable? When self regulation is engaged we may choose to not pursue certain goals in a certain way as it may go against our morals. For example one might want to win a running race (goal) but self regulation would stop one from physically assaulting a competitor to do so. Bandura suggests that those who continue to act in a way that is in defiance of self regulation are not activating self regulation in relation to that behaviour (Bandura, 1999). Self regulation is not an automatic action,if it were we may be paralysed by our decisions, it is something that must be cognitively engaged (Bandura, 1999). Therefore it is likely perpetrators of sexual harassment are not accessing their self regulatory thoughts because doing so would stop them from achieving whatever goal they believe they will achieve from enacting that behaviour. This is consistent with what Page and colleagues found when examining the continued behaviour of sexual harassers. They found that sexual harassment thrived in the workplaces where the behaviour was being excused, minimised and even justified (Page et al, 2015). When the moral reprehensibility of sexual harassment can be minimised it is no wonder perpetrators do not see their behaviour as a problem and see no reason therefor to stop. Not only that but their behaviour reinforced by the victim submitting to the threat rather than being punished .
- True or false: self regulation is an automatic response to any decision
- "My dog chewed up my shoes now she isn't allowed a treat" is an example of: a) reinforcer b) punisher
How effective is workplace training?Edit
In organisations such as the public service it is standard practice for new employees to complete sensitivity training modules and for continuing employees to redo the training once a calendar year. This training usually includes in it what is sexually inappropriate in the workplace as well as issues such as race and LGBTQI issues. But is a one hour training module sufficient to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace? Some research suggests that sensitivity training can actually do more harm than good when it presents women as "other" to men (Tinkler et al, 2022). This becomes an issue when perpetrators, who already view women as less than, are further removed from the humanity of women and reduces any empathy they may feel towards them. Instead, it has found that while it can form an important function in training more is required to foster a workplace that is not sexually permeated and supports workers (Saunders et al, 2013).
One of the difficulties Rawski and colleagues found in trying to combat sexual harassment in the workplace was to reconcile the cognitive dissonance police people (specifically men), had in viewing themselves as criminals (2018). The perpetrators viewed themselves as the “good guys” maintaining law and order, putting away the “bad guys” an integral part of their jobs. This meant they had difficulty viewing themselves as potential “bad guys”. They knew that sexual harassment was illegal meaning if it was something they were guilty of this interfered with their self-perception as a good guy. This finding is congruent with Bandura's theory of self dysregulation: the perpetrators have an error in their own cognitions stopping them from objectively viewing their behaviour as wrong. In order to fix this Rawski and colleagues suggest using something called sense-making (2018). In line with Bandura's social theory Rawski and colleagues posit that humans make meaning through meaningful social interaction with individuals approaching the situation with their own understanding of how a social interaction should play out. Rawski says that when the understanding of the social situation is disrupted the entire interaction could fall apart (2018). They suggest that workplaces use role playing using this framework; workers step through each scenario, taking turns in roles such as victim and perpetrator and to really empathise with one another. This approach has merit but also requires the players to fully participate with good faith which cannot always be guaranteed. If there are participants in these scenarios who still struggle to see their behaviour as problematic they may be particularly difficult to "get on side" or even have such approach work.
Even in workplaces where training may be done; it is not enough to encourage a workplace that is safe from sexual harassment; what is most important in deterring the kind of behaviour is the supportive environment upper levels demonstrate (Tan et al,.2020). It is not enough for workplaces to go through the motions of having training when instances of sexual harassment take place, those affected need to be able to feel that they can go to management or HR and have action taken against the behaviour (Tan et al,.2020). In this way, the organisation is demonstrating that the learnt behaviour of harassment will not be reinforced with the perpetrator “getting their way” but instead punished. Behavioural psychology suggests that reinforcement of behaviour is a more reliable way of promoting positive behaviour; however in this instance it seems that the punishment to reduce the undesirable behaviour of sexual harassment is more successful. If organisations can effectively demonstrate that sexual harassment will not be met with the achievement of the goal the perpetrator has in mind, sexual harassment may no longer be seen as a useful course of action and therefore not even considered as an option. In order for this to work, however, the entire organisation must be on the same page or else the harassment may continue throughout.
- What is a difficulty police officers face when dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace?
- What are the benefits of workplaces having a hard stance on sexual harassment?
The motivations behind sexual harassment are complex and varied. In this chapter we have explored three potential motivators for the behaviour: evolutionary impulse, threat to power and self dysregulation. Each approach offers new insight as to why a person may be motivated to sexually harass their colleague and relies on a different understanding of human behaviour. In order to be able to stamp out sexual harassment work places need to be seen to be supportive of victims and punish perpetrators to encourage reporting of the behaviour and demonstrate that it is not acceptable. Additionally, workplaces could benefit from socially interactive training in which employees engage in self regulation and empathy in order to reduce the likelihood of the behaviour being committed in the first instance.
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Louis C.K. says sexual misconduct allegations are 'true'. (2017). After being accused of sexual misconduct by five women in a New York Times report, comedian Louis C.K. says their stories are "true." The release of his new movie, "I Love You, Daddy," was cancelled after the story's publication.
Martin, C (2022, April 4) With Louis CK’s Win the Grammys Prove Again that Cancel Culture Doesn’t Exist Paste Magazine https://www.pastemagazine.com/comedy/louis-ck-grammys/
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- With Louis CK's Win , the Grammys Prove that Cancel Culture doesn't Exist (Paste Magazine)
- Louis CK accused of Sexual Misconduct (New York Times)
- Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (Fair Work Ombudsman)
- Why Can't we Stop Fighting about Cancel Culture? (Vox Magazine)
- Safe work Australia Sexual Harassment in the workplace - https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/resources-and-publications/video-and-audio/influencing-positive-change-and-accountability-sexual-harassment-work
- Betty Hart: Canceling Cancel Culture with Compassion TED talk https://www.ted.com/talks/betty_hart_canceling_cancel_culture_with_compassion