News flash: There’s no quick fix to workplace harassment

Institutions scrambled to revamp their diversity and inclusion statements over the summer — and while the spotlight on discrimination is welcome, some have come across as performative, especially in organizations where discrimination is commonplace. It’s not a secret that many companies have been rewarding the toxic behaviour of their senior executives for years and actively keeping underrepresented groups out of leadership roles.

Anti-discrimination statements are important — but they’re just words. Dismantling oppressive structures takes a lot of work, and it is an ongoing process that may not yield results in the short term.

That's the subject of an August opinion piece appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences(PNAS),which argues there is no "quick fix" to solving the problem of sexual harassment in academia.

And while the piece focuses on gender-based bias, many of the points can be applied to tackling all forms of discrimination, including racism, or bias against individuals due to religion, sexual orientation, disability status, ethnicity, citizenship, or a combination of these identities, among others.


"Gender-based harassment is insidious because it's not always distinguishable from criticism or rudeness," said Kathryn Clancy, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and the first author of the report.

"How do you report that someone told you that you have a 'mommy brain'? Or that you are hard to listen to with your high-pitched voice?"

This form of harassment is called a microaggression.

Defined as subtle but offensive comments or actions directed at a minority group that unconsciously or consciously reinforce stereotypes or bias, microaggressions can be hard to quantify because they're often delivered casually and without the intention to offend.

Their effect is cumulative. For that reason, they're often described as "death by a thousand cuts."

Microaggressions don't just apply to white women: individuals with intersecting identities are disproportionately victims of this form of harassment.

Examples of race-based microaggressions include telling a non-white individual they 'act white' or assigning a nickname to a colleague with a non-Eurocentric name.

Over time, this can lead to lost productivity and burnout, which can stunt career growth.

And that's why discrimination can't be eliminated with a few quick fixes, the authors of the PNAS piece argue.

Toxic work environments are often rife with subtle forms of bias, some of which the perpetrators may be unaware they even carry.

In the report, Clancy says some institutions rush to enact procedures that protect against legal liability but ignore the overarching issues that allow sexual harassment to flourish.

"It's easy to think that complying with the law means you are doing what you need to do to eliminate sexual harassment on your campus," Clancy said.

"But 30 years of research suggests the opposite. An over-focus on legal compliance leaves victims behind and can harm entire communities who are not served by conservative interpretations of the law and formal reporting processes."


Clancy and her colleagues make several recommendations on how to address sexual harassment in a meaningful way, including changing the culture.

"Courageous leaders deal directly with problematic faculty or staff, rather than abdicating responsibility to a formal reporting process that is unlikely to lead to a finding," Clancy said.

"They need to initiate conversations early and often, and if instigators are unwilling to change, leaders should consider graded consequences for their actions."

The authors advise against quick seminars, video tutorials, or training sessions by outside consultants. Instead, they suggest science-backed training conducted by a live instructor in programs that last longer than four hours.

They're also in favour of changing the "character, quality, and diversity " of academic leadership.

"Academia has the second-highest rate of sexual harassment, after the military," she said.

"We condone and even reward selfishness, rudeness, and unhealthy forms of competition. We need brave leaders who are willing to change incentive structures and cherish their brave whistleblowers, caring mentors, and collegial staff and faculty."

Read more here.

Originally published at on August 24, 2020.




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