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Sexual Harassment: A Continued Epidemic in the Remote Workplace

Author: Sinduya Sivayoganathan

Sexual harassment, particularly against marginalized groups such as Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour, women, 2SLGBTQ+, and disabled individuals, has a long and traumatizing history in North America. During the 18th and 19th centuries, sexual coercion was a fact of life for enslaved people in the South and free domestic workers in the North (TIMES). Most women who worked were domestic servants and regularly endured sexual harassment at the hands of their employers. By the 1920s, physical and verbal assaults from men, especially those in leadership positions, were common and working women were advised to simply quit if they could not handle the “inevitable” sexual advances.

Today, sexual harassment continues to persist in the workplace. In 2019, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 7,609 sexual-harassment complaints, representing an annual increase of 14%. These stats, however, do not account for all acts of sexual harassment, as many, particularly those from marginalized groups, do not report their incidents of sexual harassment. The history of sexual harassment in North America and present-day society tells us one thing: sexual harassment in the workplace is an epidemic and one that persists even within hybrid and remote workplaces. 

We often define sexual harassment as any unwanted explicit or implicit comment, gesture, or action that can be sexual in nature and makes someone feel afraid, uncomfortable, or ashamed. Sexual harassment also includes hostility or bullying of a sexual nature. This includes comments, conduct, or displays that enforce traditional gender and sex stereotypes. And while the foundation of this definition is still very relevant, a common misconception is that sexual harassment is an “in-person” issue and as such, often not considered in the remote workplace. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw the rise of hybrid and remote workplaces, and at first many had hoped that the physical distance between team members would result in fewer incidents of harassment and discriminatory behaviors. And in some cases, it has. But just as we adapted to the remote work environment, so did sexual harassment.

While there is a lack of research into sexual harassment in remote workplaces, emerging statistical and anecdotal data illustrate an increasing trend in the number of incidents related to sexual harassment while working remotely. A 2021 survey report by the Rights of Women revealed: “women experience an upsurge in online sexual harassment while working from home, as harassers take advantage of online work platforms and social media during the pandemic.” In another survey, 45% of respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment since they started working from home, and 23% reported a rise in sexual harassment incidents in the remote workplace. 

Researchers cite a few conditions that may have contributed to the increase in sexual harassment experiences, including the blurred lines between professional and personal spaces that accompany remote work. This blur has even been affirmed in Lunaria surveys, where employees agree that remote work is difficult to navigate with the norms of in-person work, where personal and professional lives are well separated. These blurred lines often mean that team members can access private information and personal areas of others (e.g. bedrooms, familial situations, sexuality, and more) that can be used against an individual. 

Additionally, the decreased formality in remote environments creates a condition where normal workplace codes of conduct might not seemingly appear applicable, thus creating an environment that can be conducive to sexual harassment. This is not to say that decreased formality in the workplace is bad and that white-gaze-oriented professionalism standards need to be enforced in the remote workplace. It is more to say that decreased formality does not mean a decrease in respect, safety, and civility towards others. When decreased formality is confused for decreased civility, it can create a hostile work environment.  This is further aggravated by the challenges that may be associated with monitoring remote employee conduct and a lack of information about how to address remote harassment behavior. This increasing trend is also closely associated with a lack of awareness or understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment in remote and hybrid work environments. 

How Does Sexual Harassment Appear In the Remote Workplace?

Sexual harassment in the remote workplace can be very subtle, seemingly normal, and micro in duration. However, it can also be a prolonged trend of actions. These conditions often result in uncertainty as individuals have difficulty identifying such incidents, making it difficult to know what should and should not be reported, which results in an underreporting of sexual harassment. This makes it even more critical for organizations to ensure team members understand how sexual harassment can occur in the remote workplace. One way sexual harassment takes form in the remote workplace is through seemingly normal statements and questions that can be directly or indirectly sexual in nature and can occur in virtual meetings through Zoom, Google Meets, etc. For example, this can consist of unwanted flirtatiousness or romantic advances, even if not sexually explicit, in addition to statements such as “Wow, you look terrific in that top!” or “Your voice sounds super sexy this morning!”

It can also include unwillingly subjecting team members to view, engage, or comment on sexual content, such as sharing pornographic material of others or oneself, or engaging in sexual activity in virtual meetings, emails, or communication platforms such as Slack and Teams. A common example of this is the unfortunate phenomenon of Zoom masturbation that violates team members without them ever knowing. Some anecdotal examples from the Rights of Women report include respondents detailing instances where the harasser takes screenshots during virtual meetings and circulates them among other team members, pairing them with derogatory and sexually explicit statements. Another respondent mentioned instances where they felt pressured by their employer to show their full-body on camera instead of just their face. 

A common form of sexual harassment in the remote workplace (though it occurs in the office) is digital messages that are sexually suggestive or explicit. These can include emails, chats, or text messages containing comments, requests, jokes, pictures, or GIFs that have sexual content, including unwanted advances.

In short, it is any unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature. No matter the form of communication, if it fosters a hostile environment for a person or even the people around them, it becomes a convenient avenue for harassment.

How Can Organizations Proactively Respond?

Organizations and employers have a critical responsibility for preventing and addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. In the age of hybrid and remote work and the increasing trend of sexual harassment incidents within remote spaces, there is a significantly greater need for organizations to be proactive and ensure a safe and inclusive workplace for all team members. Below are a few ways employers can help take proactive measures and address sexual harassment in the remote work environment. 

Update Existing Policies and Processes

Prior to the pandemic, remote work was not popular, nor was it an everyday reality. But throughout the pandemic and as we begin to emerge from it, remote work is here to stay. This makes it crucial for organizations to update policies to ensure definitions and examples of sexual harassment account for the remote work environment. 

Provide Policy Reminders

Remind team members of your policies prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace and how they may report such misconduct. This can be posted as guidelines on a Team or Slack channel. Organizations should also clearly communicate codes of conduct with electronic devices and virtual engagement and explicitly prohibit sharing sexually suggestive or explicit content in workplace settings and on company devices and communication channels. 

Training Team Members to Identify and Take Action 

Artificial intelligence (AI) tools have come a long way in supporting organizations to create safer workplaces. Today, there are numerous AI tools that help identify and report instances of sexual harassment. An AI software of this nature can be used to recognize inappropriate messages or flag certain ‘red flag’ words and send them to a designated authority. Aligning AI tools to remote channels and clarifying privacy policies can provide unprecedented support for individuals on the receiving end of sexual harassment.

Training Team Members to Identify and Take Action 

As mentioned earlier, one condition that has contributed to the rise in instances of sexual harassment in the remote workplace is the lack of awareness and information about what sexual harassment looks like in a remote workplace and how to address it. Ensure all team members, including leaders, are provided with training to identify sexual harassment both in the office and the remote workplace. Providing avenues and guidelines around bystander intervention to stop harassment behavior will also help increase awareness and support team members in feeling more equipped to address incidents of sexual harassment. Training should also iterate that retaliation for reporting or participating in a sexual harassment investigation is illegal. 

These steps can help organizations proactively prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment in the workplace, even the remote workplace, needs to be addressed. Interested in how you can ensure that workplaces – including remote spaces – are free from harassment? Book a call with one of our associates today!

Header and Feature Image by Sigmund on Unsplash ❤️

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