There is a generational divide on sexual harassment
Could senior women step up and be more pro-active to protect junior targets?
It is clear that there is a massive generational gap when we discuss sexual harassment with women over 50. Certainly my mother and her peers are in different places compared to women of my own age. But there is no doubt that senior women could do more to combat sexual harassment and protect junior targets within organizations who are more vulnerable.
The older generation seems to be split into three:
- Those that find sexual harassment as offensive then as it is now. They see the holding of men accountable a real step forward. They are supportive of the women who tell their stories and want to protect junior targets. My own mother recounts how she experienced inappropriate workplace behavior when she was in her mid 20s and reported it to HR. She was asked what she had done to invite the advances. It became difficult for her and she left. She understands how many women struggled to deal with it because it was so deeply embedded in the culture of the time and many were afraid of losing their jobs or other repercussions. Just like it is today.
- Suck it up and get on with it like we had to. Sexism and sexual harassment was part of the fabric of their everyday life and they had to turn a blind eye and ignore it. In so doing they became complicit. This fueled the tolerance of a “boys will be boys” culture which was prevalent for them. They became, knowingly or unwittingly, part of the open-secret culture that exists in many organizations. These women were at times complicit and allowed junior targets to be lined up for predatory men such as we have seen with Harvey Weinstein and other sexual harassment scandals of recent months. Some enablers were women in positions of influence and authority.
- Some older women are tolerant of mild sexual harassment. Wolf whistling seems to be the big divide. 40% of a recent YouGov research of women over 55 suggested that it would be flattering to be wolf whistled at in the street. Some celebrities have even come out suggesting that any complaints from our generation are alienating men. Catherine Deneuve the French movie star has led a backlash against the #MeToo movement.
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Generational divides make a difference
There are even differences between younger generations. My generation (older Gen Y) tend to view behaviors such as winking, comments on our appearance, placing hands on non-sexual body parts (arms, shoulders, lower back) more leniently, while younger women were likelier to find them inappropriate.
The reason why these generational divides are so important is that although women of all ages experience sexism, the outright sexual harassment tends to be reserved for younger women which is where the real issue lies. For women of a certain age they are quite often in positions of seniority in our organizations and are removed from the problem areas by their seniority and age. These female junior targets are young, inexperienced and highly vulnerable. This is hardly surprising.
For many, abuse has even occurred before the workplace. In the U.S.:
- One in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult.
- 82% of all victims under 18 are female.
- Females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
Senior women need to do more to protect junior targets
But the fact is, regardless of their personal view, women in senior roles need to be more active to protect junior targets . They need to:
- Be vocal and visibly advocate for a policy of zero tolerance.
- Engage with junior women to find out what is going on for them in their areas of work and if sexual harassment exists in their organizations. Many are oblivious. My short straw poll indicated that to be correct. Some have heard innuendo and don’t “get involved with gossip.” Well now is the time to use words involving smoke and fire. They need to get out from behind their desks and talk to women at lower levels to find out what is going on for them. This is one area where women’s networks can be useful.
- Encourage safe places and platforms to support and enable targets to come forward.
- Insist on their male colleagues being held to account. To protect them means they can go on and repeat their behaviour elsewhere. This was very evident with the Oxfam scandal. The penalties were not strict enough and there were repeat offences.
- Intervene if necessary to protect any female targets that have come to them for support.