The last couple of weeks have been full of news about workplace abusers and harassers being called out. It seems that every time I look at Twitter there’s a link to yet another story about an accusation of inappropriate behaviour. It’s good that this behaviour is being brought into the open. But two decades ago there was also a huge uproar about harassment when Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was accused of harassing the staff in his office.
So it puzzles me why we apparently need to have this same conversation all over again – especially when most organizations now have statements or policies about zero tolerance for workplace harassment or abuse.
These discussions of high-profile incidents of obvious harassment also have another effect. They distract attention from other forms of harassment. Harassment isn’t just the big incidents; it’s also the little things that happen over and over again.
Earlier this year, a study pointed out some very good examples of smaller, ongoing harassment. Alice Wu, the author of the study, was finishing her undergraduate degree in economics at the University of California-Berkeley when she undertook a study of the language used to describe men and women on Economic Job Market Rumors (EJMR). EJMR is an online economics forum, which, as the name suggests, was initially established as a place to share job postings. It’s evolved over time to include more general discussions as well.
Wu collected all the posts on the forum from threads that started between 2014 and 2016; this resulted in a database of more than a million posts. She analyzed the posts to identify the 10,000 most commonly used words across all of them. Then, through statistical analysis, she identified the words that were most likely to predict whether a post also included “gendered” words (e.g., “sister” or “brother”) , or whether a post also included the word “she” or “he”. The images below show the top 10 words in each of those categories.
Wu’s other analyses indicated that forum posts including male-associated words were more likely to be posts about professional or academic issues, rather than posts about personal topics. She also found evidence that the more insulting female-associated words tended to occur in posts that denigrated the work of female economists.
There’s no reason to assume that economists are any more or less sexist than workers in other occupations, although there are fewer women than men enrolled in economics programs, and female economics professors may be less likely to receive tenure than their male counterparts. And in any online forum, there is also going to be thread drift, along with posts by trolls that are just there to cause trouble – although, Wu notes, the EJMR forum is moderated, so it would be reasonable to assume that the more extreme trolling would be removed.
But think about what kind of atmosphere this creates for women in a professional setting – to go to a job posting board and seeing posts using words that trivialize and demean them. Before any trolls jump in here, let me be very clear – I am not saying that women are snowflakes who can’t handle any kind of criticism or insult. But EJMR is a forum established to discuss the job market in a professional occupation. Words like “horny” and “feminazi” aren’t appropriate in a professional setting, and professionals should know that.
It’s encountering this sort of “little” thing, day by day, week by week, that can be so demoralizing to women in the workplace. Gendered insults or putdowns aren’t as obviously inappropriate as physical assault, but when they happen over and over again, they cause their own kind of damage. Men – and it is mostly men instigating these events – should know that these kinds of words and actions are wrong. But either they don’t know, or they do know and they say or do the inappropriate thing anyway.
In my view, the reaction to the recent revelations of inappropriate workplace behaviour has been so strong because of the frustration of “what do we have to do to make this stop?” It’s not that difficult for co-workers of any gender to interact with each other respectfully. (The “Golden Rule” – treat others the way you would like to be treated – is a good place to start.) Organizations seem happy to make statements about diversity, inclusion and equality in their workplaces, but many seem reluctant to pro-actively create a culture free of inappropriate behaviour – or to create a culture in which people who are subjected to inappropriate behaviour are able to report it, and to see the situation resolved in a meaningful way.
I’m sure there will be a lot more to discuss about this issue. But for now I leave you with the last paragraph of Alice Wu’s paper, which summarizes very powerfully why “little” things like words are actually very important.