The following vignette is based on true accounts of what happens when women are exposed to repeated romantic or sexual overtures in the workplace. It also incorporates proven bystander intervention strategies that don't require direct confrontation of the perpetrator but can nevertheless be very effective at reducing or eliminating the offensive and harassing behavior.
I’m an engineer. I’ve been out of school for seven years and I love my job. I’ve had no trouble moving up the ladder at work and am headed toward a senior engineering position after I finish up my current project. I like my boss. I like the hours. I even like the traveling. For the most part, I like and respect all of my coworkers...except Mark.
Mark is at least a decade older than me and much older than the new engineers that roll in the door every summer, fresh graduates eager to make a good impression. The guys have to put up with his raunchy jokes and the porn pic of the day that he insists on showing us when we need to stop by his cubicle. It’s irritating. But for Molly, it's worse. She has to put up with Mark's repeated overtures. I have overheard Mark pressuring Molly to go out with him about once every week, and I am sure what I overheard is only the tip of the iceberg. But, I had a job to do and it kept me busy. So, for the most part, I put up with Mark and let Molly deal with Mark's repeated and unwanted overtures.
When the time came for another round of sexual harassment training, I was ticked. I was in the middle of a key turning point in my current project and I didn’t have time for another round of perfunctory PowerPoint. I was even more aggravated by the fact that all this PowerPoint wasn’t doing a single thing to stop Mark from his obnoxious behavior. As I sat down for the training, I was fuming. What a waste.
But this year, the training folks had added another module to the sexual harassment training program, focused on bystander intervention. An hour into the new module, I was practicing the five D’s (delay, delegate, distract, document, direct) - and feeling totally uncomfortable with direct and distract. I just didn’t feel confident about intervening in the moment. But there was something there with the delay and document skills. I could definitely see myself doing that. I thought about Molly and felt guilty that I had just left the problem on her plate because I thought myself to be too busy and important to deal with what was "her problem."
I had walked into the training frustrated and annoyed. I walked out feeling badly about my own inaction but determined to do something about the Mark and Molly situation.
I didn't have to wait long for my opportunity. The next day, I came across Mark doing his thing with Molly. As I suspected, I chickened out on confronting the situation directly, but later, after Mark had gone home for the day, I stopped by Molly’s cube and asked her about how she felt about the encounter Molly. At first, she said it was no big deal, but I chatted a little while longer and she started to open up. She used the word creepy over and over again.
In the following months, I talked to Molly a lot, learning more and more about what she had to put up with Mark. I still couldn't bring myself to confront Mark, but I started taking lots of notes in my conversations with Molly and with her permission, I did what I should have done months, if not years, before. I gathered my notes and sat down with my manager. I started the meeting by telling him flat out that Molly could be contributing a lot more to the organization if we just addressed the Mark part of her equation. Given how desperate we were for more engineering person-power, I had hoped that would pique my manager's interest - and it did.
The conversation went on for over an hour. We strategized how to address the behavior without alienating Mark or Molly. In the end, however, we accepted that despite our best efforts, Mark might have to leave our group, if not the organization. My manager followed up by talking to Mark. When Mark jumped on the defensive or tried to minimize what he was doing to Molly, my manager was able to insert into the exchange many of the specifics I had given him. Mark stayed defensive and angry after that meeting. After a couple of months of an angry and sulky version of Mark, we were told that Mark had left the company and we needed to find a way to fill his shoes.
Fill his shoes. Yeah. Right. No thank you.
What surprised me the most was Molly. She had been doing okay in her job before Mark left, but still, I had often felt my patience running thin with some of her mistakes, particularly the technical ones. I had thought she would work through it as she settled into her first job, but I was starting to wonder if she had what it takes to be an engineer. After Mark left, though, her performance shot way up. She was already easy to work with, but without the harassment hanging over her head, her technical skills quickly ramped up - so much so that I quickly forgot why I was ever impatient with her.
When someone is harassed in the workplace they cannot produce, contribute, or work up to their potential. Working to eliminate the harassment is well within the reach of coworkers and does not have to involve direct confrontation to the harasser. Want to know more about bystander intervention? Check out these resources:
- VanAntwerp, Jennifer, and Denise Wilson. Sex, Gender, and Engineering: Harassment at Work and In School. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2022. See Chapter 11, "Solutions," pp. 188-224.
- The 5 D's of Bystander Intervention (Right to Be organization)
Harassing behavior can push people to leave their jobs and even their careers. It creates workplaces that are less productive and less welcoming.But of course, the climate of a workplace depends on much more than harassment. Would you like to participate in the ongoing research study about the workplace climate for engineers and computer scientists? You can help us understand what the workplace feels like to individuals - and you can help illuminate how to change things for the better for everyone. (This research is sponsored by the University of Washington and Calvin University.)
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