Skip to main content

17 February 2020

Busting the myths about sexual harassment

Lilia Cortina, Victor Sojo and Tine Köhler

LILIA CORTINA, VICTOR SOJO and TINE KÖHLER: We have decades of research on sexual harassment and how to combat it. But first, we need to dispel the myths that enable it


The #MeToo movement has put the spotlight on just how widespread and harmful sexual harassment is, injecting much needed urgency into tackling it. 

But, if we are to tackle it effectively, we need to go back to what decades of organisational science tells us about sexual harassment and shatter the myths that are still helping to perpetuate it.

Myth #1: sexual harassment is mostly a matter of flirting or romance gone awry 

Contrary to popular belief, sexual harassment is typically a put-down, not a come-on.

Its most common variety is gender harassment – acts that convey offensive, demeaning or derisive attitudes based on gender or sex.

Examples include insults to the abilities of the target –“women don’t belong in science” or “men suck as nurses”. And then, there is the vulgar and aggressive name calling, like calling a woman supervisor an “ignorant slut” or a male co-worker a “pussy”. 

Gender harassment can also entail the display or online sharing of sexually degrading images and slogans like lewd graffiti, graphic cartoons or sexual slurs scrawled on white boards. 

As these examples make clear, this conduct isn’t about misguided flirting, or awkward attempts to pull some into a relationship. The aim of gender harassment is to put people down and push them out.

It is “sexual” harassment because it is based on sex.

To be clear, sexual harassment can also involve unwanted sexual attention – unwelcome hugging, groping, kissing or relentless pressure for dates or sexual favours. Or it can entail sexual coercion – attempts to condition the terms of employment on sexual submission, like “sleep with me or you’re fired”.

These acts of unwanted sexual attention and coercion are relatively rare compared to the pervasive problem of gender harassment.

Importantly, instead of expressions of romantic interest, sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention are examples of individuals (most often men) trying to exert dominance and control over others (most often women).

Myth #2: gender harassment is no big deal

People often assume that gender harassment is relatively harmless – an assumption that doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny.

Studies show that frequent and pervasive gender harassment is just as debasing, disturbing, and detrimental to work and wellbeing as infrequent sexual coercion.

Being sexually threatened or coerced can be terrifying, but gender harassment tends to be more universal, unchallenged and unchecked in many places of work, making it more insidious.

Furthermore, when people think that a few sexist jokes or crude comments aren’t a problem – are merely “everyday harmless banter” – nobody speaks out against it. And when nobody sticks up for the target of the jokes, they indirectly condone the perpetrator’s behaviour and signal to the target that they have no right to speak up either.

These are amongst the worst situations to work in.

Myth #3: sexual harassment is a woman’s problem – it rarely happens to men

Men aren’t immune from sexual harassment.

One study, for instance, found that 37 per cent of male university staff and 46 per cent of male court staff had been gender harassed. Rates tend to be much higher for gay and bisexual men and, most of the time, men’s harassers are other men.

This male-on-male harassment is often about enforcing a heteronormative view of masculinity that is hostile to anyone who doesn’t conform, whether it is someone who is young, inexperienced, gay or in some other way viewed as “not man enough”.

Myth #4: women frequently file false claims of sexual harassment

According to popular advice, men should be careful around women – avoid meeting privately with women workers, avoid mentoring women protégés, and (if you’re an academic) avoid admitting women students to your program or research group.

Otherwise, so the popular advice goes, you run the risk of a false accusation of sexual harassment.

What drives this advice is a fiction that women frequently misinterpret common kindnesses as sexual come-ons, and that women frequently fabricate and exaggerate, resulting in frivolous complaints of sexual wrongdoing.

Research tells us nothing could be further from the truth.

Actual formal reports of sexual harassment and assault are exceedingly rare. One study found that only six per cent of graduate students who had faced sexual harassment from faculty or staff had reported it.

The latest figures from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s national survey show that only 17 per cent of sexual harassment experiences were formally reported to the employer.

False reports are even rarer. There is simply no evidence that women (or men) commonly complain – falsely or otherwise – about sexual harassment.

Statistically speaking, a man is far more likely to be sexually harassed by another man than he is to be falsely accused of sexual harassment by a woman.

Myth #5: the solution to sexual harassment lies in bigger and better reporting systems

Filing a formal complaint is excruciatingly difficult for the victim.

It requires a harassment survivor to retell and relive – often multiple times to multiple strangers – deeply distressing, humiliating, or frightening experiences.

Survivors worry that their complaints may be met with disbelief, disdain, inaction or retaliation. Too often their fears are well-founded – most complainants face personal or professional reprisals after speaking out against their harassers.

Institutional complaint systems put a great burden on survivors.

They are expected to muster the courage to speak out about abuse no matter how adversarial the complaint process; no matter whether it erodes relationships with friends and family; no matter how much it jeopardises their jobs, their work or their wellbeing.

So, does science suggest any solutions to sexual harassment? Yes

Instead of placing unreasonable demands on survivors, we should call on companies to be brave and enact the bold changes necessary to prevent sexual harassment.

According to several decades of research, the most effective way towards preventing sexual harassment is to address the contexts that enable it.

The more male-dominated the setting, whether it is a majority male setting or a male culture, the more a blind eye is turned to sexism or other toxic behaviors, and the more likely it is that sexual harassment ensues.

Hypercompetitive environments, where people have learned to use abuse to undermine competitors and get ahead, also brew sexual harassment.

Organisations need to reframe their performance assessment, promotion and compensation mechanisms to guarantee that positive workplace behaviour is incentivised and abuse isn’t.

Sexual harassment is a gendered problem and it requires gendered solutions.

An obvious solution is to hire more women, promote more women and integrate more women into every level of leadership. We know from many studies that more gender-integrated institutions have fewer problems with sexual harassment.

To create a space that is welcoming to women, those in power must castigate sexist insults, sexual commentary, sexually offensive imagery and treatment of people as sex objects.

Institutions and leaders need to strive to cultivate a context where all people enjoy genuine respect, no matter their gender, race, sexuality or other social identity.

But eradicating sexual harassment also depends on each of us individually taking responsibility. 

Employees need to speak up for each other and support those who have been targets of abuse. We need to be vigilant about what is going on in our own workplaces and call out inappropriate jokes, slants, or comments.

Every one of us needs to send a clear signal that we will support victims and become their allies.

Lilia Cortina is Professor of Psychology, Women's Studies, and (by courtesy) Management & Organizations at the University of Michigan.

Dr Victor Sojo is a Lecturer and Research Fellow at the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne, and is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Global Institute for Women's Leadership at King's College London.

Tine Köhler is Associate Professor in International Management at the University of Melbourne.