There are many good reasons women don’t report these experiences in the workplace, not the least of which is persistent systemic and institutionalized tolerance, starting at very young ages.
Depending on the industry, between 25-90 percent of workers in women-dominated service industries say that they have experienced sexual harassment. A June 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report revealed that 3 out of 4 targets of harassment never come forward because they fear they won’t be believed, no action will be taken or, worse, they will face social or professional retaliation. Those fears are reasonable considering that more than 40 percent who do report say that they have been penalized for doing so.
The most common response to harassment: They try to minimize the harm, try to avoid their harasser and ignore the behavior if it continues.
Harassers count on higher status and the credibility, influence and entitlements that come with that to get away with harassment.
But another factor that harassers rely on, and one that parents need to be fully aware of, is socialization.
One of the unaddressed reasons women don’t press for justice is that we are often taught, as girls, to prioritize the needs of others, self-objectify and, at all costs, be nice and polite. It is as girls that most women are taught subtle but consistent lessons about not challenging bigger, more credible and more powerful people when they tell us what they want us to do with our bodies. If we are treated in ways that make us uncomfortable, we are encouraged to think about what we did to provoke the behavior and to feel shame. No one sits girls down and says that they should be quiet and blame themselves, but girls often get these messages from well-meaning adults acting in unthinking ways.
School dress-code policy enforcement provides an ideal example of how socialization encourages silence, shame and deference. Codes can serve an important function, but rules that are highly gendered and that rely on subjective interpretations of words like “inappropriate,” “professional” and “immodest,” lend themselves to damaging outcomes.
Take “shame suits.” Some schools make students, almost always girls, wear neon clothes or extra-long and baggy sweatpants if they violate school codes. Sometimes these have words, for example, “dress code violation,” emblazoned on them. Often, students are publicly shamed and reprimanded, made to sit out classes or go home. In some instances, the school day begins with administrators openly examining student’s bodies and measuring, for girls, skirt lengths. Earlier this year, girls at a school in Britain were made to kneel on chairs while teachers used rulers to check the distance from their hems to their seats.
Enforcement might be done in a good-natured way, or a way that makes other student laugh. What’s really happening, however, is that girls are being objectified and have little way to object. Their bodies are used as props and, in instances where students are humiliated and laughed at, what is essentially a bullying dynamic involving the abuse of power, turns into joke.
What do students learn in exchanges like these?
First, girls are disproportionately negatively affected by these policies that often reflect the assumption that they are, by default, sexual objects. Girls don’t start off experiencing their own bodies as sexual objects, we teach them to self-objectify in interactions like these. A girl’s shoulder, for example, only becomes an issue when other people, almost always adults, inappropriately sexualize her.
Second, dress codes that rely on words such as “distracting” almost always centralize heterosexual cisgender boys. Administrators and teachers rarely seem to consider what might be distracting to heterosexual girls and LGTBQ kids. When I was a teenager, there was a boy who sat ahead of me in class whose bare neck made it hard to think straight, but I managed just fine. Words like “distracting,” and the implied “cover yourself up,” teach children that girls are responsible for controlling how boys think and behave because they can’t be held responsible. This is a particular problem in the United States where parents are more likely to hold the almost always self-fulfilling belief that boys are less capable of controlling themselves.
Third, just because a student has to obey and, usually, quietly acquiesces, doesn’t mean that she consents to what is happening to her. Students have little or no option but to do what their teachers and administrators tell them to do with their bodies. If a girl is told to wear a shame suit, or is used to demonstrate appropriate skirt length, she not only has to accede to having her body used as a prop but then may feel as though she should laugh when its use was turned into a joke.
Objectification takes many forms, but all objectification amplifies the silencing that is more common in the ways we teach girls to interact. Studies show that adults are far more likely to encourage girls to be accommodating in their speech and responses. Being quiet and polite is actively rewarded in classrooms, for example, where girls are given less leeway to be disruptive, challenging and transgressive and where they are frequently being given high grades more for compliance than mastery of subject matter. A “good” girl doesn’t balk, talk back and, in this case, a good girl wouldn’t refuse to have her body drawn on.
Dress code enforcement easily reproduces exactly the types of behaviors that adults are seeking to prevent. They involve a pattern of silence, shame and obedience in situations where someone bigger and more powerful tells a girl what to do with her body. These are lessons in the dynamics of power, control and silence in abusive situations. They are also lessons in male sexual entitlement. That bigger and more powerful person might be an athlete, an employer, a trusted coach or religious leader, people who know they are more likely to enjoy the benefit of the doubt.
What do students watching learn to do? They learn to laugh at student being controlled, to minimize the harm, avoid teachers and administrators who might accost them, and ignore the behavior of both adults and boys who sexualize them. Importantly, they also learn if girls are being told they are distracting and unprofessional, they should not expect boys who crossed a line would be held responsible. So do the boys.
Sexual predators count just as much on the subtle and everyday gender socialization as they do other factors. Dress code enforcement speaks directly to the need for schools and adults who care for children to examine their own biases, habits, assumptions and traditions with an eye toward reducing gendered norms, double standards and male entitlement. It’s time to realize sexual harassment is not just a women’s issue.