Intersectional discrimination: How belonging to multiple marginalized groups impacts sexual harassment in the workplace.
There are few job interview questions more nerve wracking than “tell me about yourself.”
In part, that’s because the way we think about our identity is too complex to sum up in a single sentence. ‘Am I a working professional?’; ‘A rock climbing enthusiast?;’ ‘Good friend?’; ‘Mother?’; ‘Film buff?’; ‘Latin American?’; ‘All the above?’
While considering each of our many identities is potentially endless process, it’s undeniably more representative than boiling it down to a single adjective. However, when tackling the root causes of sexual harassment in the workplace, the complexities of identity provide an illustrative answer.
Intersectional harassment is influenced by perceptions of the victim’s belonging to multiple marginalized groups.
Intersectional harassment is defined as harassment that’s committed on the basis of multiple identities. African-American women, for instance, are subject to a greater rate of sexual harassment than Caucasian American women, presumably due to their marginalized racial and gender identity.
As you might expect, the results are harmful to both the employee and the business. According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, members of racial minorities within the study were more likely to experience workplace harassment than their white counterparts. Similarly, women experienced higher levels of harassment than men, and women who were members of an ethnic minority were the victims of more harassing behavior than white women.
The potential combinations of marginalized identities are nearly endless, which makes them particularly difficult to study, however these broader negative outcomes are often compounded for individuals with multiple marginalized identities:
- A study of university faculty found that 20 percent of respondents with disabilities received mistreatment due to their disability
- A survey of university students found between 40 and 60 percent of respondents reported racial and ethnic harassment
- Eight percent of survey respondents received unwelcome comments about their age
- Approximately 35 percent lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) survey respondents reported being harassed in the workplace
- Surveyed transgender workers reported a 50 percent rate of harassment at work, with six percent reporting being sexually assaulted for their gender expression
As these varying forms of harassment intersect, victims are more likely to exhibit negative consequences, including, “depression, general stress and anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and overall impaired psychological well-being.” And this increased harassment can lead to even greater consequences beyond the workplace, as reflected in a 2013 study that uncovered higher incidence of depression among trans black women who had experienced discrimination.
How to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace.
While there are a multitude of steps your business can take to limit the likelihood and impact of any harassment—let alone intersectional harassment—in your workplace, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offers several targeted recommendations in their study of workplace harassment.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “leadership and commitment to a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace in which harassment is simply not acceptable is paramount.” In addition, “this leadership must come from the very top of the organization.”
Board-level executives should routinely discuss issues of culture and current anti-harassment efforts, continually looking for ways to improve the cultural health of the firm. Further, the board and entire leadership structure should publicly embrace and participate in any actions taken (e.g., training) in order to make it clear to every worker that creating an inclusive, welcoming environment is everyone’s responsibility.
Beyond just having a “commitment” to anti-harassment efforts, your organization must hold employees accountable to this expectation—with no exceptions. Your business needs clearly-defined conduct guidelines that outline requirements for appropriate employee behavior, and that also establish direct, actionable consequences when these policies are violated. Further, your organization needs to provide workers with easy-to-use, preferably anonymous, reporting processes for when violations occur.
The EEOC recommends frequent, preferably interactive, anti-harassment training for all employees. And this training should be routinely reevaluated to track overall effectiveness and cultural impact.
In the report, the EEOC also encourages businesses to consider bystander intervention training, which would ideally empower workers to mitigate the impact of harassing behavior and prevent issues from escalating to a level that would require managerial intervention.