Sexual harassment is one of the most insidious forms of workplace discrimination. It runs the gamut from the sleazy boss' quid pro quo to the naive IT guy's joke. It happens to both men and women. It costs money and squashes creativity. Everyone agrees it is bad, but many cannot agree on what it is.
It is so insidious that not even academia is immune. Just last week a prominent Berkeley astronomer resigned over student and faculty accusations of sexual harassment. The astronomer in question was world-renowned and headed a $100 million campaign to find other habitable planets. The six month investigation by Berkeley was not even supposed to be released but for the investigative journalism of Buzzfeed. So not only was the astronomer prominent, the harassment continued for over 10 years. U.C. Berkeley even allegedly tried to cover it up. This shocking story is evidence of a pervasive culture in which the powerful prey upon the vulnerable.
Sexual harassment presents itself in two forms: one is what is commonly referred to as a quid pro quo, and the other is a hostile work environment. Quid pro quo, which is probably what happened at Berkeley, is when a supervisor requests sexual favors in exchange for job security or promotions. A hostile work environment is the presence of demeaning or sexual photos, jokes or threats. It can be blatant, like posting a raunchy joke in the break-room, or innocent, like asking a co-worker out on a date. It is also confusing because the court may rule the joke is benign but the date request is harassment. The court may rule this way because it was a supervisor asking a subordinate out. The subordinate may feel compelled to go on the date because it is the boss.
Rarely is sexual harassment so blatant as to warrant a six-month investigation and cover-up. Usually, it is discrete or even accidental. The vagueness in the law is to catch bad behavior but release benign behavior. Workplaces need to be flexible to incorporate various personalities; however, they must also protect their employees.
Don't wait for blatant behavior to be sure that you are a victim of sexual harassment. Consulting a lawyer to parse the legal language will help you understand your rights.
Source: NPR, "Sexual Harassment Case Shines Light on Science's Dark Secret," Michaeleen Doucleff, Oct. 16, 2015