Fast Track: Show us some leg, Mr Jones

Men are usually seen as the perpetrators of sexual harassment - but with changes in the workplace, they are becoming more and more often the victims
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The Independent Culture
A colleague calls you over to her desk to tell you about a friend who is being sexually harassed at work. So you grab your coffee, and already you've started making assumptions. After all, when she tells you the victim is male, you're more than a little surprised. Who wouldn't be? No British man has successfully made a sexual harassment claim against an employer, and the Equal Opportunities Commission has only taken one case to an Industrial Tribunal.

In a recent survey by the Industrial Society, however, nearly half the respondents said that they had been sexually harassed at work, and 7 per cent of that total were men. Although this is a relatively small number, claims Vikki Merchant from the National Harassment Network, it's a crime that's on the increase. "Most men are simply too afraid to report it," she says.

Indeed, while sexual harassment against women has been the focus of endless books and television programmes, there has been little else, besides the sensationalist movie Disclosure, in which the reality of men as victims has been addressed in any shape or form. "The consequence is that men don't tend to recognise themselves as victims and even if they do, they presume that nobody else will," says Stefan Stern of the Industrial Society.

Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), agrees. "First, it is not seen as very macho to complain about sexual harassment. A typical response might be, 'Great! Do you think I can get her to harass me?' And second, a great many men still don't like to admit that they can be subjugated by a woman. In cases where the perpetrator is male, the victim may be even more unlikely to tell anyone about it because that really is the ultimate taboo."

Sue Adams, a psychologist specialising in gender issues at work, claims male graduates are particularly unlikely to report instances of sexual harassment. "Research reveals that in the workplace, men tend to keep any anxieties buried far deeper than their female colleagues. This is a particularly prominent attitude among graduates because they tend to be under-confident and want to avoid rocking the boat. In turn, this means they make fairly easy targets for perpetrators.

"If the graduate is in his twenties, there's also a good chance that he'll be caught up in the current 'lad-culture' in which the adolescent and macho values of never admitting to feeling powerless are fundamental. Sadly, young men don't even need to believe in these values for them to affect their outlook. Knowing other male colleagues might think like that is enough to make them try and conform until they feel more secure."

In fact, says Michael King, head of Psychiatry at the Royal Free Medical School, men generally find it hard to perceive themselves as victims, irrespective of the scenario. The social construction of the "victim" is, after all, focused on helplessness and vulnerability, notions generally attributed to being female. "The stereotype that men cannot be victims of sexual crime is even stronger," he explains.

For Oliver, 27, the repercussions were severe. "My first job after leaving university was for an advertising company where I had a female boss who made lewd remarks and touched me inappropriately. What made it worse was that it was like she was laughing at me whenever she did these things. Consequently, I found it threatening and malicious. I lost sleep and became depressed. But it didn't occur to me to tell anyone about it because who'd have believed me?

"To be honest, I didn't even think of it in terms of sexual harassment. I'd never heard of sexual harassment against men. I just felt I couldn't deal with it and that my only option was to leave. It took me quite a while to get another job, and I had no end of trouble trying to think up reasons as an explanation for having quit my previous position so soon after starting."

According to Jo Gardiner, campaigns manager at the Industrial Society, since more and more women fill top positions in the workplace, the risk of female harassers is inevitable. "Sexual harassment is about power rather than sex, and so there are more opportunities than ever for women to abuse their power," she says.

Nevertheless, there are several arguments against this, including the belief that women are less likely to feel threatened by male subordinates than vice versa - and that sex is less likely to be used as an outlet for hostility by women than men. But this is difficult to prove. Who's to say that if a relationship at work has gone sour, that a woman won't use her power in this way? And who's to say that a woman is less likely to use intimate knowledge about a man to gain an advantage over him in the workplace? "It's one of the major reasons why companies discourage relationships between employees," stresses Jo Gardiner.

Diana Warren-Holland, director of Portsmouth Rape Crisis Centre, believes sexual harassment against men by male colleagues is also prevalent. "Just like other sexual crimes, it is about anger and domination, rather than sex," she says. "But because men often fail to recognise that this is the case, their main concern will be that if they report it, their own sexuality might be brought into question."

Raymond, 34, had been working for his male boss in a large pharmaceutical company for two months before he began to be harassed. "My boss was very camp. Although everyone thought it was funny, his constant comments about my appearance started to really get me down. Eventually, he started sending me e-mail messages that I felt were semi-pornographic. It was only when my wife pointed out that a woman would consider this as harassment that I decided to report it. But I was as good as laughed at by the personnel officers."

The Equal Opportunities Commission admits that this kind of dismissive attitude prevails in many organisations. Sheila Wild, its Director of Employment Policy, says: "Even small companies should issue a clear policy statement of harassment, stressing that it is something both sexes can suffer from. Unfortunately, though, most don't bother to do this until they are taken to tribunal."

But not everyone is so cynical. Phaedra Shillingford, Locum Director for Women Against Sexual Harassment (WASH), explains: "More and more men phone us with concerns about female friends and colleagues as victims of sexual harassment. This shows that less men than ever are in denial about its existence. The next step is for them to recognise when it's happening to them."

Whatever your sex, if you feel that you are being sexually harassed, you should:

n Make it clear to your harasser that you take exception to his or her behaviour;

n Keep a record of the incidents. It's not just individual incidents but a regular pattern of behaviour that will be the best defence;

n Ask colleagues if they have the same problem. You'll have a stronger case if you take joint action;

n If the incidents do not stop, then report the harasser to someone who has the authority to do something, and if necessary, seek medical help. You may be suffering from stress and a doctor's report may prove vital evidence if your case finally reaches an industrial tribunal;

n Suggest that your employer introduces a policy on sexual harassment;

n Seek outside help from unions, Citizen's Advice Bureau or the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Equal Opportunities Commission, Overseas House, Quay Street, Manchester, M3 3HN, 0161-833 9244