Although most women have experienced it, street harassment receives little societal recognition and little legislative response against it, according to a new book. Yet street harassment is another type of bullying that can have a negative effect on your employees.
While street harassment can take many forms, including comments on race or national origin, gender-based comments of a sexual nature are predominant, with male harassment of females the most common. Types of street harassment include whistling, winking, cat calls and shouts of sexually specific words, cursing, lewd sounds, vulgar gestures, spitting, and even touching.
Holly Kearl, author of Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe & Welcoming for Women, says that “street harassment is so prevalent, it’s normalized,” receiving little reaction from bystanders and little discussion of it by women.
She said surveys have shown that a majority of women around the world have been the target of street harassment at some time in their life. And the underlying fear of assault or rape makes even nonthreatening comments terrifying for the target, and makes women fear the reaction if they confront their harassers.
Although it is sometimes portrayed in the media as a light-hearted action, and though “some men think women find it flattering and affirming,” Kearl says women are usually targeted not for their attractiveness, but for their gender only. Both preteens and elderly women report being verbally abused, and women with disabilities receive especially cruel treatment. Women report they are rarely or never targeted when they are with a male.
Why should street harassment be a topic of concern in the workplace? Kearl says that it has a true impact on employees because it alters their life choices and can make them stressed and unproductive.
Public transportation vehicles (buses, trains, and subway cars), platforms, and stations are prime places for street harassment to take place, especially because of the scheduled nature of encounters between women and harassers. Being harassed on the way to work, or even walking from a station or parking lot to the building, creates stress and anger in women that can affect the quality of their work.
Targets of street harassment may take to wearing running shoes, hats, and sunglasses. Harassed employees may go far out of their way in commuting, take different buses or trains, or walk different routes, to avoid harassers. They may refuse to work overtime. Kearl says that some employees have even quit their jobs because they could not tolerate the trips to and from the workplace.
What can employers do? They can be open about the subject and discuss it during harassment training, says Kearl. There can also be instruction on how to intervene if someone is being harassed on the street or on public transit.
Employers can also support employees reporting street harassment by allowing them to change their hours of work or arranging for them to be in rideshare programs.
Employees reporting street harassment should be encouraged to report it to the harasser’s employer (if known by a uniform, truck, etc.), public transit authorities, or even the police if the harassment is threatening or involves touching. Women can also use their cell phones to take pictures of their harasser or his vehicle’s license plate.
For more information on the subject or the book, go to Kearl’s website or her blog.