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When you hear the phrase “sexual harassment,” you might think of high-profile cases like that of ESPN reporter Erin Andrews or the litigation surrounding Fox News. But sexual harassment at work isn't confined to the wealthy or famous—it's very much an unfortunate reality for many women.

When I mentioned in casual conversations that I was working on an article about sexual harassment, almost every woman I spoke to had a story about how she was harassed by a male coworker. One friend described a man who greeted her and her female colleagues with “elevator eyes”—looking a woman up and down suggestively—every time they passed his desk. Another described how the more senior male employees would often make jokes loaded with sexual innuendo during meetings. 

If this sounds familiar to you, you're not alone. In a poll conducted by Langer Research Associates in 2011, one in four women has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. The national survey also notes that "a quarter of men say they worry about being falsely accused of sexual harassment." While we’re no longer in the era of Mad Men, we still have a long way to go in workplace gender relations.

What if you're not quite sure if what you've experienced "counts" as harassment? Here's how to know when to take action.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature . . . when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” That can feel like a big legal mouthful.

Georgene Huang, a former lawyer who launched the woman-focused career community Fairygodboss, tells Verily, "What crosses the line between an offhand remark or joke that is not as serious and something that is sexual harassment is the severity and frequency that creates a 'hostile and offensive work environment' or results in an adverse employment decision." 

The EEOC also notes that sexual harassment can include someone who is affected by the offensive conduct even if they aren’t the person being directly harassed, such as offensive or derogatory remarks made about women in general or comments about how a woman isn't conforming to stereotypes of how women should behave.

Why Is It So Hard to Identify?

Even if a situation might meet the legal definition of harassment, Huang says women are still unclear because, "(A) the definition is rather legalistic—that is to say, not entirely intuitive; and (B) in popular media (e.g., books, news articles, movies, TV shows, ads), typically only one or two very specific kinds of sexual harassment are widely depicted." Popular media's normalization of a man's sexual aggressiveness and a woman's compliance has led society to believe that some deviant behaviors are acceptable.

Further, some sexual harassment facts aren't particularly intuitive, such as:

  • Victims can be both women and men.
  • The harasser can be the same sex as the victim.
  • A harasser can be a supervisor or coworker, but it can also be an employer’s agent or a non-employee, such as a client or customer.

What If I Don’t Want to Go to HR?

Women in the study shared that they feared negative consequences as retaliation for making allegations—losing their jobs or hurting their careers, that no one will believe them, that nothing will be done, and feeling embarrassed or ashamed at being harassed. If you aren’t sure whether or not a behavior is in the sexual harassment category or you're afraid of it affecting your job, you have other options besides running straight to the HR department.

  1. Educate yourself about your company’s policy for supporting victims of sexual harassment. If they're unclear, it's a red flag.
  2. The EEOC recommends that the victim first informs the harasser that their behavior is unwelcome and to request them to stop. Case in point: Someone I know had a coworker who refused to call her by her name. Instead, he called her “pretty girl” every time he saw her. After a few weeks, she asked him to use her given name and he complied. Sometimes, educating the would-be harasser is enough to stop the behavior.
  3. As a next step, Huang advises, "I would recommend speaking to your supervisor/boss (to the extent that the harasser is not a party involved) as an intermediary step." Huang also advises going to HR through a recommended process that employees have been told exists. "Whatever process you follow and whomever you decide to tell at work, I believe sending an email to a member of HR or a manager is the safest course of action for the victim. Creating a paper trail is always the safest thing to do from a legal perspective, even if the event ends up having no witnesses (i.e., a "he said, she said" situation). At the very least, the paper trail will document your view of the events and the dates so that those things cannot be disputed later."
  4. Seek an advocate elsewhere. The HR department is there to represent the company, and may be on the side of the harasser, especially if they're high performers and the company has a history of protecting them. Talk to a lawyer who specializes in discrimination cases. They may advise you to alert the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with a formal complaint to ensure that you aren’t retaliated against for exercising your rights.
  5. If you feel a threat to your safety, immediately report to the US Department of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

The EEOC says that the best way to decrease the frequency of sexual harassment is through prevention. Huang notes, "Without clear definitions that are explained by companies in training sessions, or by women doing their own research, it's hard to imagine the situation improving drastically in terms of a common and clearer understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment." By better educating ourselves and others, reaching out for support, and helping victims, we can show that sexual harassment of any kind will not be tolerated.