One statement business leaders should make to prevent sexual harassment

Sexual harassment prevention cannot be overlooked.
Sexual harassment prevention cannot be overlooked.
Image: AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File
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There’s no excuse anymore for employers that overlook their role in preventing sexual harassment. But how exactly should companies go about eliminating this workplace scourge?

While sexual misconduct trainings are important, countless studies prove them ineffective. Far more impactful, research suggests, is the promotion of women to leadership roles, bystander intervention, and frequent, outspoken messaging from both male and female managers about their intolerance of harassment.

This messaging doesn’t have to be drawn out, academic, or stuffy. It can be as simple as the advice that legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon shared in an interview with the New York Times. MacKinnon wrote the seminal 1979 book Sexual Harassment of Working Women, which shaped Americans’ legal understanding of sexual harassment as a form of discrimination. Decades later, her work is proving itself the roots out of which liberation from workplace misogyny may finally emerge. Here’s what she recently told the Times:

“People have asked me for 40 years how not to get sued for sexual harassment. Well, a good first step is making sure that sexual harassment doesn’t happen where you are. Especially now, because it’s going to come out. I’ve seen leaders of companies go in front of their employees and say: ‘Listen, we’re here to work, not to cater to your social and sexual needs. If I hear you’re doing that, you’re out of here.’ It’s pretty strong, but harassment doesn’t happen in those places.”

While the “you’re out of here” portion of the statement might be modified for organizations that don’t favor zero-tolerance sexual harassment policies—which can be terrible for women—the first half communicates the essential, non-negotiable demand at the heart of #MeToo: Work is for work, not sex; women are professionals, not objects; and if your desire to sexualize your co-workers overwhelms your professional focus, then you, my friend, are the problem. And thankfully, your time is up.

It’s worth remembering, it was not always clear that prevailing attitudes toward harassment and harassers would move in this direction.

Even after the US Supreme Court agreed with her legal theories and in 1986 outlawed workplace hostility in the form of harassment as a type of discrimination, MacKinnon struggled to get tenure at Harvard and was labeled a crazy, man-hating “dominance feminist.” In 1993, a second-year Harvard Law student named Hans Bader, who now works under the Trump administration as a lawyer at the US Department of Education, wrote in The Harvard Crimson that MacKinnon’s writings “reflect a venomous hatred for men as a class, stereotyping all men as rapists, and display contempt for heterosexuals in general.”

Nevertheless, MacKinnon persisted, convinced that tides would change. Nearly 50 years later, they did.

This story is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more stories here.