Does sexual harassment between women occur in the workplace? It might seem like an odd question, but it is one that is definitely worth considering. When most of us think about sexual harassment, we often picture an inappropriate interaction between a man and a woman — most commonly, a male boss or coworker harassing a female employee. But since period underwear company THINX came under fire recently due to allegations of inappropriate behavior and harassment by CEO Miki Agrawal (which she and the company deny), the question of what woman-on-woman sexual harassment looks like — and how common it actually is — has been on many of our minds.
The confusion society seems to have about what constitutes woman-on-woman sexual harassment exposes a lot of our assumptions about the nature of sexual harassment, female friendships, appropriate work behavior, and the power dynamics of the modern office. To be clear, female-on-female workplace harassment does exist — and it can be just as noxious and destructive as any other kind of harassment. Bustle talked to some experts about why, despite its undisputed existence, it remains so under-discussed — and about what to do if you think you encounter female-on-female workplace harassment yourself. Here's what you need to know.
Female-On-Female Workplace Harassment Is Often Very Similar In Nature To Male-On-Female Workplace Harassment
So what's the real landscape like when it comes to female-on-female workplace harassment? More extensive than you think. A study looked at official workplace harassment suits filed in Australia between July and December 2009, and found that 5.7 percent of them were in the female-on-female category. They also discovered something else; a third of the female-on-female complaints were about "unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing," and 90 percent of them were filed by subordinates against supervisors.
This information paints an interesting picture of how the power dynamic behind harassment plays out. As an illustrative example, a case settled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2014 that involved Wells Fargo and female-on-female harassment by different workers found that:
"several female bank tellers complained that a female manager and a female co-worker had harassed them both verbally and physically. Among other things, the harassers in that case allegedly made sexually explicit comments and gestures to the female tellers, suggested they wear provocative clothing to work, and inappropriately touched them."
Virtually nobody would deny that a subordinate put in that position was in a sexually harassing work environment. Teresa Fitzsimmons, director of workplace dynamics at Lausanne Business Solutions, explained to Bustle that "sexual harassment, while sexual, is less about sex and more about power. Sexual harassment is a signal of an individual having a lack of respect for another. It can signal that there are deeper interpersonal issues at play. The bottom line is that sexual harassment evolves out of disrespect and asymmetric power."
Some people seek to put the blame for female-on-female sexual harassment on "queen bee syndrome," a concept that involves "professional women who bully, undermine, or sabotage other women in the workplace because they are jealous, feel threatened by other women or are seeking to maintain their authority by denigrating others," in the words of law scholar Emily Wilson.
However, there are a few issues with this. One is that "queen bee syndrome" is widely regarded as sexist, and is believed to be found only among a very specific subset of women rather than female bosses in general. Another is that female-on-female sexual harassment doesn't necessarily need to be motivated by jealousy or a sense of threat. Inappropriateness and harassing behavior can spring from many different places — all of which end up harming employees.
Workplace Sexual Harassment Isn't Always About "Sexual Desire"
Another reason the issue often goes overlooked is how we think about the roots of harassment. There's a myth that all sexual harassment is rooted in the harasser's sexual desire for the harassee, and that therefore same-sex harassment incidents are limited to LGBQ employees.
However, that's a very inaccurate understanding of how sexual harassment works: under the US Equal Employment Opportunity laws, it's framed as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when such conduct... has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment." The term "verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature" includes many behaviors that have nothing to do with attempts to initiate sexual acts, and it's even been clarified in Californian law that "sexually harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire.”
Our Beliefs About How Women Interact Can Make It Harder For Us To "See" Woman-On-Woman Sexual Harassment
How we view female homosociality is at fault here too. Too often, we ascribe sexually questionable, aggressive or boundary-crossing behavior solely to men (let's all remember male-on-male incidents of sexual harassment are a rising problem, too). This kind of thinking ignores the possibility of women being harassers too, which is why female-on-female and female-on-male workplace complaints are less discussed.
Fitzsimmons tells Bustle:
"Too often we imagine sexual harassment as a male versus female issue. By compartmentalizing sexual harassment and other negative anti-social behaviors to specific stereotypes we are expending energies that could be focused on tackling the true root of the problem. That said, female versus female sexual harassment is on the rise in the workplace."
But beyond that, there's the illusion that all-female companies or situations are immune, and that those who experience female-on-female harassment shouldn't talk about it because it "destroys the sisterhood." A 2014 essay in VICE about a woman who reported her female superior for alleged sexual harassment zeroed in on the writer's regret, saying she felt "scared and apologetic," and explained that "the aftermath made me feel exposed and helpless." There can be a sense that women are meant to feel solidarity for one another and be a team, particularly in industries otherwise dominated by men, and that allegations of sexual harassment could tear that crucial solidarity apart. This isn't true, of course — all people have the right to feel comfortable and respected in their workplaces, no matter who they are or where they work. But for some women, having another woman act as a workplace aggressor can make the situation feel more complicated.
Poor Workplace Boundaries Can Make Things Seem Even More Complicated
As THINX's former head of public relations, Chelsea Leibow, who filed a complaint against her former boss' alleged behavior, commented to New York Magazine, her experiences
"...seemed like a way for Miki to assert her dominance over female employees by simply doing whatever she wanted to do without asking, and showing she could get away with it.”
The takeaway from this is that even behavior that masquerades as "friendly" can easily cross boundaries and make people feel uncomfortable, particularly if there's an inherent power imbalance involved.
What Should You Do If You Encounter Female-On-Female Sexual Harassment?
If you're reading these case studies and definitions with a sinking feeling of recognition, the experts are here to help. Fitzsimmons says, "To address the situation, women who are victims of sexual harassment by women must learn methods to rebalance the power. When sexual harassment occurs or is suspected, victims should immediately notify HR — no matter the gender of the aggressor. In addition, it is important for women who are victims of sexual harassment to speak up the very first time it happens. This can be difficult because often situations may be misconstrued or ambiguous."
The importance of immediate action is echoed by Jennifer Yeko, founder of Ninja Recruiting, who tells Bustle:
"I do think a lot of women are embarrassed when they are sexually harassed in any situation, so it's important that they know it's not their fault and that it should be reported immediately. Also, I would keep detailed notes of date, time, location if it happens in case a lawsuit needs to be filed."
When it comes to how to report it, Kaslassi says it's common to deal with it in different ways based on different power dynamics: "There are policies and procedures put in place by companies to deal with harassment, but it isn't a black and white issue and employees often deal with it in the ways in which they most feel comfortable. For example, if an employee is on the receiving end of harassment from another employee on the same 'level' or rank as them, sometimes they might feel most comfortable speaking with that person directly about it, instead of going to someone superior, regardless of the policy put in place. On the other hand, someone else may go directly to their boss."
However you choose to deal, though, all the experts emphasize that action is key. "Strong and respectful communication is often crucial in these situations," Fitzsimmons tells Bustle. "Women who possess a constructive verbal toolbox can regain a sense of safety and comfort needed to create fair and strong teamwork with shared responsibility and minimum of punitive consequences for all involved."
She gave a few examples of sentences that women could use if they wish to interact directly with a woman whom they feel is harassing them, including
-“When you make a joke like that, it makes me feel really uncomfortable."
-"When I am uncomfortable then I can't concentrate."
-“When you make those kinds of advances, then I worry about my safety."
-“When I worry about my safety all my energy I'm focused on protecting myself versus doing the job I need to do."
These sentences "show an awareness of how the other person’s rude or threatening behavior has a negative impact on someone else." Which is key — because no one should have to suffer through being harassed by anyone of any gender.