The Ladder Has No Rungs

Miss the latest in the blame game that you just can't win? It's that if you don't want to be harassed, stop acting like a man. As University of Toronto's Jennifer Berdahl's latest research reveals, women who defy traditional gender stereotypes at their places of employment experience more sexual harassment than their more deferent colleagues.

Berdahl does a nice job highlighting (and then debunking) the public's perception that women who exhibit typically feminine appearance and behavior (think Dolly Parton a la Nine to Five) are the more frequent victims of sexual harassment. But we'll say it again, and for definitely not the last time...harassment is not always about sex. It's not always about gender. It is about POWER.

Not saying your breasts, hair, dress, makeup, legs, and other body parts don't get an inordinate amount of attention at the water cooler and conference table, but your decision to pursue occupations historically reserved for men and your ability to exhibit behavior traits traditionally attributed to masculinity are far more provocative.

The harassment Berdahl describes is not just a by-product of our attempts to transgress gender essentialist behavior and performance, but in fact is a reaction to our very existence as thinking, performing, accomplishing beings - which is in direct opposition to the misogynist culture which upholds men as the sole achievers. Our ability to have an identity threatens theirs. Berdahl offers, "Women threaten male identity when they blur distinctions between men and women and thereby challenge the legitimacy of these distinctions and the status they confer men."

This is no surprise to us at HollaBackBoston.com since there is a well-documented body of experience among women which cites spikes in street harassment when wearing business suits. It is well known that this type of harassment is about putting women "back in their place." Berdahl simply proves that this activity is alive and well in the workplace.

Luckily, she also makes it clear that her findings are not to be interpreted as putting the responsibility for preventing harassment on the women themselves - this time, gender deviants. She argues, "the onus should not be on victims to avoid a wrong but on those in charge to create structures and incentives to prevent it." She continues, "women are already navigating these social conflicts to the best of their ability. But ultimately, it's not their responsibility, nor is it in their control."

Thanks Jennifer. Now, we've just got to convince our male bosses.

Written by Hilary Allen. Creative Commons 2.5.

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At 22:17, Blogger Becky said...

Good God, go get it, Hilary! Your analysis is off the charts, as is Berdahl's. This issue resonates with me and my experience very deeply.

I'd also be interested in academic work on how other *women* respond to women who defy gender norms and stereotypes. In my experience, not only do non-conforming women experience harassment from men, who perceive you as a threat to their status and power, but many women also make a great effort to put these deviant women back in "their place."

What a bitter pill!

At 20:47, Blogger Golden Silence said...

I love these topics and discussions your group brings up on this site. It gives us a chance to not only put stories about being harassed out there, but to discuss why it happens and what we can do about it as well. Keep up the good work.

More on topic---I've never had guys harass me on the job, but I've had male customers on the phone that say they'd rather talk to a man...whatever.

At 18:21, Anonymous cami said...

my male bosses talk down to me no matter what i do. it's hard to imagine a word different than that. thanks for the link to this.


At 09:42, Anonymous HollaBackBoston said...

Becks -
You're in luck.

"Berdahl is now working on another paper, looking at the way women in the workplace treat other women who violate sexual stereotypes."


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