Redefining Sexual Harassment

Redefining Sexual Harassment

Claire Lehmann
Claire Lehmann
11 min read

Since the 1960s, women have made sweeping inroads across professions and academic fields, achieving not just excellence but pre-eminence in a wide range of areas. These include medicine, psychology, veterinary science, biology, the law, journalism, and education. This year, the Nobel prize in physics was jointly awarded to Donna Strickland, a Canadian physics professor, for the invention of chirped pulse amplification, and her doctoral adviser Gerard Mourou.

Despite these massive gains, however, women have not made sweeping inroads in every field. Some remain stubborn outposts of male dominance. Such fields include mathematics, computer science, and, bringing up the rear, engineering, in which women only make up about 12 percent of the workforce.

For advocates of gender equality in the workplace, women’s persistent low representation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is a particular concern. Some have sought to blame it on the prevalence of sexual harassment in these fields, in spite of the fact that sexual harassment across all fields is declining. In 1997, the United States’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 16,000 complaints about sexual harassment; by 2017, that rate had dropped to 9,800, a decline of 40 percent in 20 years.

Has STEM bucked this trend? A national report on sexual harassment in engineering was released earlier this year and was promoted recently at the October 19th at the Society of Women Engineer’s Conference. Entitled ‘Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’ (2018), it was produced by a committee of scientists belonging to NASEM (National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine) and published by the National Academies Press. Its claims are stark, pronouncing that “50 percent of women faculty and staff in academia experience sexual harassment” and “20-50 percent of students experience such harassment from faculty or staff.” These claims are made in the present tense, indicating this is the current state of affairs.

News articles which promoted the report carried headlines like ‘Half of all women in engineering schools experience sexual harassment,and—

If this is true, it suggests that the faculty and staff of the institutions where these women are employed are guilty of serious neglect and major intervention is required to fix the problem. Which is exactly what several commentators have suggested:

It’s also what the NASEM committee has suggested. Its recommendations include making use of “egalitarian leadership styles,” developing “ways the research funding can be provided to the trainee,” as well as “focusing evaluation and reward structures on cooperation and collegiality,” and taking “explicit steps to achieve greater gender and racial equity in hiring and promotions…thus improv[ing] the representation of women at every level.”

In The People’s Law Dictionary, the definition of sexual harassment in U.S. law is as follows:

Sexual Harassment
n. unwanted sexual approaches (including touching, feeling, groping) and/or repeated unpleasant, degrading and/or sexist remarks directed toward an employee with the implied suggestion that the target’s employment status, promotion or favorable treatment depend upon a positive response and/or “cooperation.” Sexual harassment is a private nuisance, unfair labor practice or, in some states, a civil wrong (tort) which may be the basis for a lawsuit against the individual who made the advances and against the employer who did not take steps to halt the harassment.

The legal definition quite explicitly links the definition of sexual harassment to sex: “touching,” “feeling,” and “groping” and to harassing behaviour directed at an individual: “toward an employee.” It goes further, stating that the behaviour in question will instil fear in the targeted employee if they don’t comply with the harasser’s demands: “with the implied suggestion that the target’s employment status, promotion or favorable treatment depend upon a positive response and/or ‘cooperation.’”

If sexual favours are a condition of employment that is known as “quid pro quo” harassment and, legally speaking, is considered the most serious kind. Behaviours that create an intimidating environment are also considered serious—so long as the behaviours are severe and pervasive enough to constitute harassment in the eyes of a reasonable person. This is known as the “reasonable person standard,” (although in 2013 the US Departments of Education and Justice dispensed with this standard when it comes to sexual harassment.)

Legal definitions sometimes differ from layperson’s definitions. However, not in this case. The Oxford English Dictionary defines sexual harassment as “Behaviour characterized by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social situation.” The legal definition simply takes it one step further by adding that the target may consider their employment status to be at risk.

Neither the legal nor the layperson’s definition of sexual harassment was used for the report released by NASEM. The editors of the report—Paula A. Johnson, Sheila E. Widnall, and Frazier F. Benya—made an estimate regarding current rates of sexual harassment on the basis of a number of past studies, which they themselves helped to select. No original data was collected or analysed.

It is important to note that there is no consensus in the literature on sexual harassment. Like many fields of inquiry, it contains many internal and ongoing debates—about how best to measure sexual harassment and the best way to track such behaviours over time, among other things. In deciding which research to draw on, the authors of the NASEM report explain that they chose studies which define sexual harassment as consisting of not just sexual coercion, sexual advances and unpleasant and degrading comments, but also gender harassment. That is, sexist comments and “ambient harassment.” It is this definition that’s being used when the 50 percent claim is made.

The studies selected for the report used a questionnaire called the Sexual Experiences Questionnaire (SEQ) to measure harassment. Questions in the SEQ include: “Said things to put women down, for example, that women don’t make good supervisors;” and “Treated you ‘differently’ because of your sex.” The authors of the SEQ define sexual harassment as “… unwanted sex-related behavior at work that is appraised by the recipient as offensive, exceeding her resources, or threatening her well-being.” Yet many items on the SEQ do not meet the “sex-related” part of that definition. For example, “Said things to put women down” has no relationship to sex.

The SEQ, which is considered the “gold standard” measure of sexual harassment by the NASEM editors, holds that different treatment according to sex is an example of sexual harassment. However, in another part of the NASEM report, not being treated differently because of your sex is also considered sexual harassment. For example:

…the “ideal worker norm” is pervasive in academia. As Leskinen and Cortina (2014, 110) explain in their work on a broader conceptualization of gender harassment (a type of sexual harassment): The ‘‘ideal worker’’ is someone who works full time and consistently over his or her lifetime and who takes no leaves for pregnancy, child care, or other caregiving responsibilities [Williams, 2000]. Employers value and reward the ideal worker, despite the inherent stereotypical sex-based expectations (i.e., workplaces are structured around male bodies) that this ideal endorses [Williams, 2008]. Conversely, some employers punish personnel who fail to meet the ideal worker norm; this notion of ‘‘family responsibilities discrimination’’ is gaining attention among lawyers and social scientists as a significant barrier to women’s employment and advancement [see Williams, 2008; Williams and Bornstein, 2008].

It looks like the authors of the NASEM report considered it sexual harassment if an employer treated a female employee differently because of her sex and sexual harassment if an employer failed to treat a female employee differently because of her sex. The former is considered patronising, while the latter is inconsiderate. In light of this, NASEM’s estimate that only 50 percent of women experienced sexual harassment begins to look quite conservative.

The SEQ—and sexual harassment literature more broadly—has been criticised in the scientific literature for its broadness and lack of precision. In a paper published in Law and Human Behaviour in 2004, three academics wrote:

[T]he SEQ is a flawed instrument and…its positive features have been greatly exaggerated. It does not seem to measure anyone’s definition of sexual harassment, including that of its own developers. Even if the SEQ measures only psychological harassment that raises another important question: what is psychological sexual harassment?

We believe it is a mistake to consider the SEQ (in its various incarnations) a measure of sexual harassment. If [it] claims to be measuring sexual harassment, it needs to be operationalized in a manner that is consistent with someone’s definition of sexual harassment, whether that is a legal or a lay definition of sexual harassment, or even the researcher’s own definition.

Such limitations are not mentioned in the NASEM report, although the authors do acknowledge that when the definition of harassment is expanded to include sexist comments and “ambient harassment” the incidence goes up:

The overwhelming majority of sexual harassment involves some form of gender harassment (the put-downs of sexual harassment that include sexist hostility and crude behavior). Unwanted sexual attention is the next most common form of sexual harassment, and only a small minority of women experience sexual coercion.

For instance, Schneider, Swan, and Fitzgerald (1997) analyzed data from two samples of women: factory workers and university faculty/staff. In both samples, gender harassment was by far the most common experience: 54–60 percent of women described some encounter with gender harassment, either with or without unwanted sexual attention. In contrast, sexual coercion was rare, described by approximately 4 percent of women in each sample.


In another study, Leskinen, Cortina, and Kabat (2011) analyzed survey data from two samples of women who work in highly male-dominated sectors: the military and the law. Focusing only on data from women who had encountered at least one sexually harassing behavior in the prior year, they found that 9 of every 10 people who experienced sexual harassment had encountered gender harassment with little or no unwanted sexual attention or coercion.

It could be argued that stretching the term to include behaviour that does not fit the legal or layperson’s understanding of sexual harassment presents no problem—as long as the most serious types of sexual harassment (unwanted advances and sexual coercion) are not overlooked. The more capacious definition is simply an attempt to capture all instances of unwelcome and unpleasant conduct, whether of a sexual or a non-sexual nature, since it’s this conduct which makes STEM workplaces unpleasant environments for women which is claimed contributes to the lack of gender parity in these fields. However, if the authors of the NASEM report are using a broader definition than the one used to measure sexual harassment in other fields—which they are—they cannot then claim that it is more prevalent in STEM than elsewhere.

The authors have another argument for including things like “ambient harassment” in their definition, which is that the reports they included in their survey only asked women about harassment they’d experienced in the last 12-24 months—although that argument is tantamount to an admission that they were worried that if they stuck to the more conventional definition they wouldn’t be able to come up with the headline-grabbing numbers they were hoping for. “An initial challenge in conducting survey research on sexual harassment is that many women are not likely to label their experiences as sexual harassment,” they write.

In 2016, University of Melbourne psychologist Nick Haslam published a seminal paper on the phenomenon of “concept creep” in psychology. Haslam proposed that several categories of meaning had expanded within psychology over a period of several decades, and that this expansion had occurred both vertically and horizontally. These categories included abuse, trauma, mental disorder, bullying and prejudice. The expanding definition of sexual harassment, therefore, sits inside part of a larger, more general trend.

Haslam says this process is often driven by worthy goals—and no doubt the same could be said of those who’ve expanded the definition of sexual harassment. Driven by the goal of promoting equal opportunity for women in the STEM fields, gender equality advocates have sought to broaden the meaning of the term to capture milder and more subtle behaviours they believe contribute to keeping women out. But do they? And is there any evidence that women are more likely than men to experience hostile behaviour of a non-sexual nature in the workplace?

Sexist comments and “ambient harassment” are, by their very nature, more ambiguous than a boss’s groping or demands for sexual favours. What might be ambient harassment to one person may go completely unnoticed by another. Likewise, what may be perceived as a sexist comment by one person might not be by another. But perhaps what is most note-worthy about the definition of the NASEM report’s authors use is that neither intention or the subjective interpretation of the target matter when it comes to sexual harassment. Even when women do not consider “ambient harassment” to be sexual harassment, this view is overridden by the researchers. In the sexual harassment literature, what counts most is the view of the researchers carrying out the surveys, who interpret and label women’s experiences for them.

In the NASEM report, behaviour that is classified as sexual harassment need not be about sex, need not be distressing, need not be interpreted as sexual harassment by the person on the receiving end, and may not be directed at a person at all.

For some, this expansion of the definition will represent progress—an expansion of what Peter Singer has called the “moral circle” in which we empathise with people we haven’t empathised with before. Certainly, in the context of university and workplace governance, having administrators empathise with those who have little power may be a good thing. Nevertheless, as Haslam points out, “concept creep may release a flood of unjustified accusations and litigation, as well as excessive and disproportionate enforcement regimes.” Additionally—

[C]oncept creep can produce a kind of semantic dilution. If a concept expands to encompass less extreme phenomena than it did previously, then its prototypical meaning is likely to shift in that direction. If trauma, for example, ceases to refer exclusively to terrifying events that are outside normal human experience, and is applied to less severe and more prevalent stresses, then it will come to be seen in a more benign light.

Analogously, if sexual harassment is redefined so it includes an unintentionally sexist joke then a boss pressuring his intern for after-hours massage may come to be viewed in the same light—as a risqué joke. This risks trivialising actual sexual coercion.

But what is most surprising about the NASEM report is the authors’ dismissive attitude towards women’s actual perceptions of their own experiences. If women themselves do not interpret inappropriate comments and “ambient harassment” as sexual harassment, then what is it about the behaviour that makes it so? And if the researchers’ definition of sexual harassment varies from the legal and the layperson’s definition, what makes the research definition a more accurate term for research purposes? If the category of behaviour that is described is different to the legal and layperson understanding of the term, then why not create another separate category altogether? Or why not call it “gender harassment” rather than “sexual harassment”? All of these questions are left un-answered.

It seems apparent that the authors of the report deliberately enlarged the definition of harassment in order to come up with the figures they wanted. These startlingly high rates are then used to shoe-horn in policies and recommendations that benefit a subset of politically active individuals within the STEM fields – and create jobs for harassment consultants and diversity trainers. The interventions themselves may not actually work, in the sense that they may not create a less hostile workplace environment for women or encourage more women to enter STEM fields, but they will at least benefit those who advocate them and their political allies.

The downside is that any research findings on sexual harassment will automatically be viewed with suspicion in future.

And trust in the sciences, and NASEM in particular, is diminished when this type of advocacy is presented as objective science. But perhaps the most ominous consequence will be that the recommendations of the NASEM report are implemented, soaking up a lot of time and resources that won’t actually benefit women.


Claire Lehmann is the founding editor of Quillette. Follow her on Twitter @clairlemon

Top Stories

Claire Lehmann

Claire Lehmann is the founding editor of Quillette.