Why it’s bullshit: HBR’s solution to end sexual harassment

Marissa Orr
Mar 25, 2018 · 6 min read

Today is the first installment of a new series I’m writing called, “Why it’s Bullshit.” In it, I will dissect recent articles, research, opinions, and perspectives on a wide variety of culturally relevant topics. Then I will explain why they’re bullshit.

This article from Harvard Business Review on ending sexual harassment in the workplace makes the perfect candidate for my inaugural post. It has all the right ingredients for the perfect cocktail of bullshit:

✔ Attacks complex societal issue

✔ Oversimplifies it

✔ Misinterprets research

✔ Uses it to support faux intellectual argument

✔ Offers solution that makes no sense

The article by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, starts out by telling us that there is only ONE solution for ending sexual harassment at work. And it’s so profoundly simple, we already know what it is.

An easy fix to a problem that’s been around since the dawn of human existence? And it’s so simple, we’ve known it all along? Ok, this should be good. So, what is it??

According to Dobbin and Kalev, the only viable solution to end sexual harassment at work is: hire and promote more women into power.

Hmm, I don’t think I already knew that. Because I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered something that dumb.

First of all, hasn’t the entirety of corporate America, the government, and Sheryl Sandberg been trying to promote more women into power for the last 20 years to no avail? If that’s the only way to end harassment at work, it seems we’re shit out of luck. Way to go Harvard Business Review, for solving a stubbornly persistent societal issue with yet another stubbornly persistent societal issue!

Second, and more importantly, while sexual violations are most certainly a repugnant form of abuse, they are not the only workplace cancers, and they are far from being the most common. Harassment is not about gender. It’s about power; something both men AND women are equally capable of abusing. Promoting more women would just mean trading in one kind of abuse for another.

Both harassment and abuse are types of extreme aggression, and research has consistently shown its levels to be equal across gender. So why would Harvard Business Review approach the problem as if women were benevolent little elves who simply need Santa Clause to fill their stockings with promotions so we can all live happily ever after? Many abusers in the world are men, but the gender certainly hasn’t cornered the market on assholes.

To be fair, it’s not just Harvard Business Review. We tend to give women a free pass when it comes to being the perpetrators of abuse, especially in the workplace.

WHY FEMALE ABUSERS GET A FREE PASS

While men and women are equally aggressive, the weapons they wield are quite different. Behavioral and social scientists refer to these broad categories as direct aggression (male dominant) and indirect aggression (female dominant).

Direct aggression is the kind that’s endlessly covered in the mainstream media. It’s the jerking off on a phone call with a female subordinate or the exchange of job opportunities for sexual favors. It’s salacious. It stirs our repulsion. And it sells. “Female CEO destroys subordinate’s reputation by spreading false rumors” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as, “Weinstein forces lead actress to give him naked massage.” I’m not minimizing the disgusting nature and psychological damage done by predators like Weinstein. I’m simply pointing out that we don’t take any other kinds of abuse as seriously.

Female perpetrators are excused from their transgressions, mostly because it happens just under the radar; its covert nature makes it exceedingly difficult to detect. Research describes indirect aggression as the kind which:

“… makes it seem as though [the perpetrator] has no intention to hurt at all. ..Due to [its] disguised nature…the perpetrator is allowed to go unidentified and unaccused.” http://socialethology.com/tactics-of-female-aggression

So exactly what kinds of behavior are we talking about?

In case of conflicts, women, usually, launch gossip, spread rumors, label and stigmatize their potential rivals; they isolate them socially, make suggestive and ironic gestures and mimics towards them. Therefore, they are experts in not displaying their hostility openly, but rather in a hidden manner, for, as one of the researchers artistically said: rumors are “women’s sword” [Björkqvist et al., 1994; McAndrew, 2014].

Not only are these kinds of behaviors hard to detect by others, the victims themselves are often uncertain of what the hell is happening. “Am I being bullied or am I going batshit crazy?” Even those who are certain they are the target of a corporate bully usually can’t get others to understand or validate their experience. This invisibility and isolation of the victim make covert aggression a particularly insidious form of pain.

Attempts to explain emotional manipulation mostly just make the victim look bad. “Sheeee won’t talkkk to meeeee!” doesn’t come off quite the same way in the office as it does in the schoolyard. Try reporting to HR that your manager invited her whole team to happy hour except you, and you make yourself look like an immature, petty child. Report it again when you’ve been excluded from meetings you should be attending, and you’ve now developed a reputation for being a drama queen.

In other words, the power of indirect aggression lies in its ability to make the victim appear like a crazy bitch.

GIRL ON GIRL CRIME

When we watch movies like Mean Girls and Heathers, we laugh at the poignant truth behind the archetype of high school’s alpha female. She amasses power through popularity, surrounds herself with a small clique of groveling beta females, and together, they manipulate the emotions of the school’s Martha Dump truck, who in the end, followed their lead by killing herself.

Do we believe the Regina George’s of high school disappear into the ether upon 12th grade graduation? Of course, they persist well into our adult years, but because they are women, and their weapons are emotional, we treat it as a cute side note. We’re expected to get over that kind of petty manipulation at a certain age, relegating it to a dimension of high school we’d all rather forget.

But the whole thing invites an important question. Do victims suffer less when they are being emotionally manipulated, harassed, or abused by a female perpetrator?

Research has been conclusive on the toll of emotional abuse, reporting its effects to be just as severe as its physical counterpart. One study found (emphasis mine):

31% of women and 21% of men who reported workplace emotional abuse exhibited three key symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.” [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3844296/]

The toll of emotional manipulation and harassment is a serious one, and the girl on girl crime variety is of the most common in the workplace. A recent article by the Atlantic explored the topic, and it includes a litany of stories from women across industries, highlighting the all too common experience of female bullying. When the author reached out to women to share their experiences, she notes “tales of female sabotage would spill forth… I began to feel like a priest to whom women were confessing their sins against feminism….Their stories formed a pattern of wanton meanness.

This is not to say that women are in any way worse than men. Like I said, both genders have their fare share of assholes. The point rather, is to highlight workplace abuse is not only sexual, and women are also perpetrators of harassment.

Promoting more women into power theoretically of course, would reduce sexual harassment. But it’s been a 20 year battle to make that happen, and in the end, we’d just be trading in one kind of abuse for another.

The REAL answer to ending workplace harassment of all kinds is not to promote more women, but to promote fewer assholes.

Marissa Orr

Written by

Ex Googler. Ex Facebooker. Truth teller. My book, Lean Out, is now available online and in stores https://amzn.to/2EcUjLP

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