We Need to Talk: Drawing the Line Between 'Casual Office Environment' and Harassment

I was 15 riding in my dad’s red Mercedes sedan. A car I would later inherit and subsequently total because LA drivers don’t know how to handle the rain. It’s a tragically true stereotype.

Less stereotypical was the conversation that occurred that night between D ole D and me-- the first and only “sex” talk I would get from my father, who probably wished that there was a roadmap as trusty as the Thomas Guide in our backseat, for this convo. Not so. Instead of warning me against the wily advances of Thomases or Tylers, my dad meandered around the topic, finally landing on this odd nugget: “I want you to know that women can be predators too.” I was a sophomore at an all-girls school so the advice wasn’t entirely misplaced, but it was still “so random, so weird.” Which is what I groaned before I stared out the window, unable to make eye-contact. Predator. Not a small word. Pretty aggressive now that I think of it. In a way, looking back at it, this was gender equality at kinda sorta work--my dad thinking that women were equally as capable as men of sexual harassment (though statistically, at least in the workplace, this is not true.)

More than 15 years later that conversation is only now starting to make sense.

In 2016, of the 6,758 sexual harassment charges filed with the EOC, only 16.6% of those were by males. The data do not differentiate between sexual harassment suits between men and women or those of a same sex nature (i.e. a female superior harassing a female employee). Other studies have found that 1 in 3 women between the ages 18-34 report being sexually harassed at work, but over 70% of those women do not report it.  

Consider the number of female-to-female or male-to-male cases even more under-reported.


There have been many high-profile cases of male CEOs harassing female workers. Though American Apparel had its unitard ass dragged through the mud thanks to ousted CEO Dov Charney, a former female employee we spoke with said many of the women in executive positions weren’t much better. “When I was at American Apparel,” shared the 30-year-old who works for a new company, “a lot of the leadership was female and all the worst stereotypes about women were evident-cattiness, competitive, emotional-it was so sad to see.”

Derogatory comments about other women’s looks and bodies were common, as was slut-shaming was. “So much shit-talking,” the former AA employee shared. “Non-stop.”

Another source who works in interior design and asked to remain anonymous had this to say: “I personally feel like female superiors do sexually harass juniors, in my profession at least. Just not in the same way as the men. The men are condescending, belittling, and overtly sexual. They hold ‘meetings’ at strip clubs. And they make comments about women in general, if not specifically. The women are territorial.”

She continued, “And women make comments that in my mind--and this has happened personally--would constitute sexual harassment of the slut-shaming variety. Which is a different way of also establishing dominance and superiority. I think women have a really hard time with that. And will until it's a more equal distribution of men and women.”

"Female to female harassment simply reinforces the traditional patriarchal power structure."

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Which brings up a very important point. As women, we are still navigating what it looks like to have women in charge and, what it looks like to have office environments that are almost entirely female. This has been called the golden age for female entrepreneurship. Women are starting businesses at rapid rates. According to the 2016 State of Women-Owned Business Report it is estimated that there are now 11.3 million women-owned businesses in the United States, employing nearly 9 million people. Female leaders are also navigating a double-edged sword of quelling micro-aggression amongst females and harassment, with the the millennial desire to work in more casual environments. For instance, LinkedIn found that 67% of millennials are likely to share personal details including salary, relationships and family issues with co-workers. One-third of millennials think socializing with coworkers will help them move up the ladder. And 28% millennials have texted a manager out of work hours for a non-work related issue. Granted, those texts don’t have to be of a sexual or inappropriate nature, but many of us are confused about what’s OK and what’s not.

And there isn’t much of a precedent set.

Legally, according to Eisenberg & Baum, LLP there's this:

“The first United States Supreme Court decision acknowledging sexual harassment as a legal cause of action under Title VII came in 1986 with the case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. That case presented what would now be seen as a classic example of sexual harassment in which a female employee was coerced into participating in sexual acts by her male boss. Over ten years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Meritor, the Supreme Court considered the question of whether Title VII could apply when the harasser and victim are the same gender. In that case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., a male worker on an offshore oil platform complained about the harassing conduct of several male co-workers who allegedly engaged in both verbal and physical sexual conduct with him. The Court noted that Title VII protects both men and women from discrimination based on their sex, and held that sexual harassment by someone of the same gender can be just as illegal as harassment by a member of the opposite sex.”

Just as illegal, but much murkier. Even though it shouldn’t be. Harassment is harassment is harassment. But in these female-first-we-all-champion-each-other times, where do we draw the line between ‘casual and fun’ and harassment?

I’ve worked for horrible male bosses where harassment has been horribly apparent. Those who have thrown trash at my head and told me to pick it up. One who told me he wanted to photo recreate Jesus’ crucifixion with me as the female Jesus. “You kind of look like him,” he told me. Whatever that meant. CLEARLY NOT OK. Bosses who used the word cunt to refer to female clients as casually as a conjunction. When I was pregnant, an employer told me to get married or get rid of the baby because, “I shouldn’t bring a bastard child into this world.” NEVER OK. When it comes to bad female bosses, the behavior hasn’t been as egregious. No female boss ever asked to tie me naked to a cross, that’s for sure. To be honest, I’ve had female bosses I definitely didn’t like, but I am way more hesitant to claim harassment. But in the past week numerous stories have come out about former Thinx CEO Miki Agrawal (a woman C&C has interviewed and supported) and more questions are being asked about what really is appropriate at the office.

Part of the problem lies in our overshare culture. Unlike economics, its effects have trickled into the workplace. The workplace is considerably more open, but sexual harassment laws are considerably more rigorous than they were pre-Anita Hill. It has been an uphill battle. In the 1920s women who couldn’t take the inevitable harassment were advised to quit their jobs. The term sexual harassment wasn’t even coined until 1975 when a group of women at Cornell University called it into being. In the early ‘90s, the American public was still in the midst of figuring out what was and was not acceptable. Finally, in 1998 (and the above mentioned case) the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex harassment was also illegal.

We accept this as truth and yet, when it comes to the current office culture (especially for women), we’re still in funky water. Like we know it’s good for us, but still smells weird. Like Bikram. We openly talk about our periods and sex lives. When we swiped right and where they subsequently swiped. We discuss it on our platforms. We champion truth-telling. We applaud bosses who are forthcoming and girls’ girls and encourage open environments. Until we don’t.

These cases are more rare, but they do happen. In January 2013, a sexual harassment lawsuit involving two women was filed by an Armani employee accusing her boss of unwanted sexual advances. In 2014, one of the biggest cases of same sex harassment involving a female Yahoo executive drew national attention. Maria Zhang, a senior engineering director for Yahoo Mobile, was accused by her subordinate Nan Shi, of allegedly pressuring Shi into having oral and cyber-sex in exchange for a “bright future” at Yahoo. There was a 2014 case against a Wells Fargo superior. 

Now, there are some very clear lines in the sand. Touching, for one. Inappropriate comments as well. But there are countless examples of what a female boss might say to a female employee that would be considered harassment if said by a male, but we are generally more lenient with female bosses. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I work at a company of all women and I feel free to speak my mind, almost all of the time. I feel safe. There's the 'every company is different' argument, but that feels like a cop-out and also, hypocritical.  

As disturbing as that is, that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that every time women abuse their position of power, we undermine the equality we’ve set out to gain. Female to female harassment simply reinforces the traditional patriarchal power structure.

Which, brings me back to my dad, oddly enough. Women can be predators, too. It’s not fun to think about, but that doesn’t make it less true. It may be statistically less likely. It may not happen to 1 in 3, but it’s still happening. And it’s on other women to call it out.

That’s how we support each other. That’s how we get stronger.

Arianna Schioldager is Create & Cultivate's editorial director. 

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