Tuesday, November 26, 2019
The New York Times won a Pulitzer and helped ignite the #MeToo movement with its reporting on sexual harassment. But the Times still doesn’t understand what sexual harassment is. In its official definition and the stories it pursues, the Times employs a sexualized conception of sexual harassment that is twenty years out of date in the law. It’s also disconnected from the lived experience of most people and from the findings of social science research. In this, the Times is not alone. Even the two leading enforcers of federal antidiscrimination law — the EEOC and the Department of Justice — still at times issue pronouncements that fail to reflect current Title VII law or even those agencies’ own enforcement priorities.
Lost in these outdated but still pervasive definitions of sexual harassment are the many ways employees are undermined, excluded, sabotaged, ridiculed, or assaulted because of their sex, even if not through words or actions that are “sexual” in nature. “Put-downs” and not simply “come-ons,” these types of sexual harassment are even more pervasive than the overtly sexualized forms. Relegating them to another category or term such as “gender harassment” or “sex-based harassment” treats them as secondary to the sexualized forms, causes society to misunderstand the dynamics at play even in the latter, and skews the focus of workplace training (and subsequent reporting) about sexual harassment. With the #MeToo movement giving unprecedented attention to the problem of sexual harassment, now is the time to better understand that term.