Men wake up to the reality of harassment

Women bosses can abuse their power too, reports Kate Hilpern
Mention the term "sexual harassment" and what springs to mind? A male perpetrator and female victim, most likely. Indeed, the only case in which a man has received publicity for being the victim of sexual harassment at work in this country was back in 1993. Even then, media coverage about the man - a security guard who was awarded pounds 4,500 - was minimal.

With changes in the workplace, however, more and more men are claiming to be victims. "It's definitely a crime that's on the increase," says a spokesperson from the National Harassment Network. The biggest study to date - carried out by the Industrial Society - found that 7 per cent of male respondents had been sexually harassed in the workplace. But both the Industrial Society and the Equal Opportunities Commission claim that because most men are too afraid to report it, the real figure is probably a lot higher.

It is not an issue that tends to be taken seriously, echoes the Equal Opportunities Commission - and men are aware of that. A spokeswoman said: "The one case that we did pursue on behalf of a male telephone operator, we lost - largely because when testimonies conflicted, the woman's version of events was believed."

The reality is, she says, that it is still women who are most consistently harassed and therefore more likely to be heard. The study by the Industrial Society, for instance, found that 54 per cent of working women are victims of sexual harassment.

"The problem is that while sexual harassment against women has been the focus of endless media coverage and research, 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," explains a spokesperson from the Industrial Society.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, adds: "A great many men still don't like to admit they can be subjugated by a woman. Others think the response will simply be: `Great! Do you think I can get her to harass me too?' Others think that, like female victims, complaining about the harassment will hinder their career. Finally, if the perpetrator is male, the victim may be even more unlikely to admit it, because he assumes his own sexuality will be brought into question."

So what is causing the increase in sexual harassment against men? According to the Industrial Society, since more and more women fill top positions in the workplace, an increase in female harassers is inevitable. There are, of course, arguments that women are less likely to use sex as an outlet for hostility than men but, if a relationship at work has gone sour, a woman may use her intimate knowledge about a man to gain an advantage over him in the workplace. Alternatively, she may have crossed swords with a man in a previous working relationship in which she was intimidated - and she wants revenge.

In addition, information technology has brought its own sinister twist to the problem. Harassment by e-mail and by computer pornography are becoming increasingly common.

The conclusion from all the organisations that deal with sexual harassment at work is that employers should start issuing clear policy statements, stressing that it is something both sexes can suffer from. As it is, most do not bother until they are taken to an industrial tribunal.

"With increasing numbers of men coming forward, they might find they pay a high price in court for ignoring it," says Julian Oskins, an occupational psychologist. "Employers may also suffer because unless sexual harassment is dealt with quickly and effectively, the consequences can be serious, damaging the victim's confidence and ability to work effectively."

Employees can help, he adds, by discussing the issue of sexual harassment at work, introducing an environment in which colleagues will feel able to disclose any incidents and check if it's happening to anyone else before they report it.