The Huffington Post recently published an article examining the nature of sexual harassment in the workplace. The piece written by Zeba Blay and titled “Sexual Harassment Isn’t About Sex, It’s About Power,” encourages the reader to view harassment with a lens wide enough to see the diverse cast of characters that may be involved as victims and perpetrators.
Blay acknowledges in the article that the traditional, and in many ways, current, “picture” of sexual harassment conjures up an image of a lusty man in a dominant position making sexual advances toward a female subordinate. However, Blay suggests that when you begin with the premise that that sexual harassment is about power and not only sex, the picture starts to change. Suddenly, the perpetrator might be a woman and the victim a member of any gender – it can involve anyone in power preying on a subordinate. Blay writes, “sexual harassment is rarely just about sex. It’s about power, and women in positions of power are also capable of behaving inappropriately with employees.”
In a recently filed and highly publicized case, a former employee sued Miki Agrawal, CEO, and founder of Thinx. Thinx is the company that pioneered “period underwear” and other products designed specifically for women and to destigmatize menstruation. Agrawal is a woman.
The female employee alleged in her lawsuit that Agrawal regularly harassed her and exposed her to various incidents of sexual humiliation in the workplace. She accused Agrawal of publicly commenting on her body, fondling her, and engaging her in numerous inappropriate and highly sexual conversations. The plaintiff in her complaint paints a picture of Agrawal regularly behaving in a highly inappropriate manner on a daily basis. For example, changing clothing in her walled glass office, conducting video calls with employees while on the toilet, and asking specific and invasive questions about everyone’s sex life. The employee’s complaints to management were ignored, and many people accepted the conduct as part of the culture of the female-centric company. Agrawal has denied the allegations.
Blay suggests in her article that victims and management may not recognize “what does and does not constitute sexual harassment” when it breaks the traditional mold referenced above.
For example, there was a time that when a man was sexually harassed at work by another man, it was tossed aside as “horseplay.” The concept that a man could sexually harass a man didn’t exist. Even today when a man claims to be sexually harassed by a female, he may be ridiculed for his sensitivity. It wasn’t until 1995 that the first lawsuit was filed by a man alleging sexual harassment by a female supervisor. Still, other businesses have a “boys club” environment where any employee who complains about sexual harassment, female or male, may be ignored or mocked by colleagues.
Remember: all it takes is a person in a position of power, trying to assert this authority over an individual. Sexual harassment is not always about someone wanting to have sex.
Not until businesses and employees begin to recognize sexual harassment in all of its origins and forms, can victims feel confident that their rights are protected. Perhaps it’s time to broaden the definitions and examples of sexual harassment that we use in policies and procedures to make the area less gray. Doing so may help victims and businesses have a better framework in which to handle these situations properly.
Call Leeds Brown Law, P.C., full-service employment lawyers in New York City, if you are experiencing sexual harassment or discrimination. We handle claims for workers in all industries and businesses in New York City, on Long Island and the surrounding areas. If you think you have a sexual harassment claim, contact Leeds Brown at 1-800-585-4658 for a free consultation.