Are Hashtags Changing Perspectives on Workplace Harassment?

Are Hashtags Changing Perspectives on Workplace Harassment?

By Olivia Miltner


Because this affects your mom, sister, best friend, partner, neighbor and daughter.

By Olivia Miltner

Tarana Burke started the #MeToo movement because she saw something radical in mass healing from sexual assault. Having launched the campaign in 2006, she has said that “standing up and saying ‘Me too’ can be a deeply cathartic experience,” an experience that millions of women shared in October as the hashtag for those who had been sexually assaulted or harassed took over social media.

But the re-emergence of #MeToo more than a decade after it was created illustrates the pervasive and persistent nature of sexual harassment. According to a November 2017 YouGov survey:

Over half of women say sexual harassment in the workplace is no better today than it was in the 1990s.

And that bleak assessment comes after more than half a century of legal and social advances in the cause of feminism, including John F. Kennedy’s establishment of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women; the Equal Pay Act of 1963; the Civil Rights of Act of 1964, which outlaws hiring discrimination based on gender; Title IX, which prevents sex discrimination in schools; and the Supreme Court ruling in 1993 that outlawed sexual harassment in the workplace.

To really change … behaviors in the workplace you have to change the culture of the organization.

David Ballard, American Psychological Association

The survey, sponsored by The Economist, randomly sampled 1,500 people from Nov. 5 to 7 via web-based interviews on a broad range of topics. As for sexual harassment in the workplace, 60 percent of female respondents said the problem was either worse or about the same, and 60 percent also said they had been sexually harassed by a man.

The American Psychological Association issued a press release in November calling sexual harassment in the workplace a “pervasive, chronic problem” that had lasting effects on targeted employees, who may experience depression, anxiety and substance abuse, and on the employer, which may see higher-than-normal turnover rates and lowered productivity. “We have a long way to go before we’re effectively addressing it in workplaces,” says David Ballard, director of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence.


The issue has lingered in part because organizations have tried to deal with sexual harassment from a compliance-based perspective, “covering their bases to protect themselves,” rather than acting as an advocate for the employee, Ballard says. Additionally, Ballard notes there is little research on the effectiveness of training programs meant to educate employees, and workplaces with larger hierarchical differences of power, particularly when those positions are occupied predominantly by men, are more prone to sexual harassment. 

Tools meant to help employees, like a human resources department, are often more interested in protecting the company than ruffling feathers over a sexual harassment complaint, says Patricia Barnes, an attorney and expert on employment discrimination and workplace abuse. “Many HR departments are not there to prevent you from being harassed or to help you if you are,” she tells OZY. “They’re there because they’re controlling risk.”

That means a victim, who’s in a vulnerable position, has to depend on the company to want to do the “right thing,” Barnes says. “The company will want to do the right thing if you have evidence or you show that you are being harassed, but that can be very difficult.” 

For Barnes, effectively dealing with sexual harassment is a question of consequences. Imposing serious enough penalties on harassers and employers who tolerate sexual harassment would minimize the problem. That would take changing the law, something she hopes to see but doubts will happen.

At the same time, Ballard says policy changes aren’t enough to eliminate the problem. “To really change these kinds of values and expectations and behaviors in the workplace,” he says, “you have to change the culture of the organization, and that is a lot more than just having a training [program] or a policy.”

Achieving gender parity at the top of organizations, having leaders model acceptable behavior, encouraging bystander intervention and setting clear expectations and consequences for employees are all steps that Ballard says could help reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment.

But, he notes, achieving the culture change necessary for ending the issue is a long, ongoing process that requires sustained attention, and it’s easy to lose focus and return to the status quo as the drama of the newest round of sexual harassment allegations fades. Barnes agrees, saying now that the public’s attention is focused on the problem, the next — albeit less exciting — step is making real change. “I hope that that is on the horizon,” she says.