How disheartening it’s been for me personally to hear stories from my female friends and colleagues about incidents of sexual harassment they’ve endured in the workplace. In every case, these articulate, successful, educated women felt ashamed about what happened to them—too ashamed to speak up.
What remains most insulting is the sense that their male co-workers, superiors and business clients seemed to find the situations extremely entertaining. Uninvited touching, sexual jokes and comments about a woman’s physical appearance in the workplace can’t be turned into a social sport in which a player might earn points for the degree of outrage a woman displays in response.
Slide your hand across a female colleague’s leg under the table in the boardroom, then chuckle when she tries to slap it away without disrupting the meeting. Well, isn’t that great fun, especially when you know you’ll get away with it. According to the stories that have finally come to light among my friends, this hypothetical scene typifies how harassment plays out.
As behavioral health providers witness an increase in the number of women seeking treatment for sexual harassment aftershocks, we must ask what the larger prevention strategy might be. Before you simply check off the box indicating you offer harassment training at your organization, think a little further.
In a January survey of more than 600 treatment center professionals in the Behavioral Healthcare Executive audience, 15% of them say their company doesn’t have any sexual harassment training. We might be able to extrapolate that hundreds of treatment centers in the United States are failing their employees in this regard.
But training programs only go so far. In most cases, the program is less focused on protecting employees and more focused on protecting the organization from liability.
Rally around prevention
When I consider the idea of prevention—not unlike the prevention efforts we rally around for addiction or suicide—I think about how we must do better, insisting that men/boys come to understand the impact sexual harassment has. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a single role model who is currently taking the lead on any efforts to educate young men on the consequences for the victims as well as the perpetrators.
Remember that the individuals who are caught, fired or arrested are likely to suffer guilt, shame and remorse themselves. We’ve seen that in the Larry Nassar case, however well deserved.
Like many prevention plans, perhaps it’s best we look to local resources.
Consider the opportunity you have as a healthcare stakeholder in your community to drive the message that harassment isn’t boyish, entertaining mischief with a clever hashtag. Rather, it’s a source of trauma that potentially leads to depression, anxiety and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. As a behavioral health thought leader, it’s time for you to be the local resource and the role model.