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Gender harassment, alive and kicking

According to Emily Leskinen from the University of Michigan in the US, gender harassment has a negative personal and professional effect and should be considered a form of sex discrimination, writes Sanchita Sharma.

health and fitness Updated: Aug 07, 2010 23:32 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Like all women, I’m quite bored with sexist cracks about women being bad drivers (Traffic jam? Must be a woman with a stalled car!), emotionally unstable (It’s that time of the month!) and vicious canines (Good-looking women have nothing good to say about other good-looking women).

It sounds familiar because you must have heard it before. That’s perhaps why these incredibly inane observations rarely elicit a reaction from most women. Except, perhaps, when these remarks are used to question professional competence (She’s got promoted, she’s very attractive).

It’s well established that good-looking people get more attention everywhere, but this happens irrespective of gender or sexual prejudices. Even babies stare longer at attractive faces. The truth is that men have as large a beauty advantage as women, with a Newsweek survey last month showing that the balance is actually in favour of men.

Handsome men earn, on average, 5 per cent more than their less-attractive counterparts, while good-looking women earn 4 per cent more, found the survey, done after Debrahlee Lorenzana, 33, sued Citibank in the US for firing her for being “too hot.”

Though the case of lovely Lorenzana was a little unusual because she objected to being sacked for refusing to cover up her surgically augmented assets in the workplace, the fact is that women have to put up with mild forms of gender bias almost every day.

A new study now shows that gender harassment — verbal and nonverbal behaviours that convey insulting, hostile and degrading attitudes to women — is just as distressing for women’s physical and psychological health as sexual advances.

According to Emily Leskinen from the University of Michigan in the US, gender harassment has a negative personal and professional effect and should be considered a form of sex discrimination. Existing sexual harassment laws should recognise gender harassment as a legitimate and serious form of sex-based discrimination in the workplace, they write in the journal, Law and Human Behavior.

Sexual harassment is defined as unwanted sexual attention, be it physical or verbal. Leskinen’s survey of women working in two male-dominated environments — the US military (9,725 women) and legal practice (1,425 women) — showed that nine out of ten harassed working women said they experienced gender harassment without sexual advances. It found that compared to non-victims, gender-harassed women had greater stress, lower work performance and more thoughts of leaving their jobs.

Apart from actual or attempted sexual assault, unwanted pressure for sexual favours, touching, leaning over, looks or gestures is construed as sexual harassment. Harassment includes unwanted emails, calls, personal questions, sexual teasing, jokes, remarks or questions, as well as turning work discussions to sexual topics. Interestingly, the United Nations even classifies unwanted hanging around a person or staring at a person as sexual harassment, which makes me worry a bit about short-sighted people working with paranoid women.

Apart from enforcing laws, an effective way to lower gender harassment is to hold up a mirror to opinionated men and make them see themselves for what they are: uninformed, insecure chaps with far less going for them than women who drive badly or suffer from monthly hormone swings. Saying more would put me under the third stereotype, which is best avoided on a Sunday morning.

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