What’s wrong a compliment?

In autumn 2017, we were reminded that sexual harassment not only occurs in front of the camera, but also behind the scenes. The way the #metoo movement swept the world, including Sweden, showed that sexual harassment happens in a variety of sectors and contexts. A similar hashtag, #akademiuppropet, also emerged in academia, which has led to a number of initiatives aimed at both preventing and dealing with cases of sexual harassment in a better way.

The #metoo movement raised numerous questions about what sexual harassment actually is and how it should be interpreted. There had been research into the area, but this had become somewhat forgotten in many instances.

Sexual harassment is a manifestation of inequality, similar to many other manifestations of inequality, such as salary differences and a lack of influence. An image of a stairway has been used to illustrate what sexual harassment can entail. More indirect and verbal manifestations are represented on the first step and more physical and violent manifestations are shown higher up the stairs.

Can an inappropriate comment about someone’s appearance or a sexual joke really be compared with sexual assault and rape? Yes. According to research, it is important to see how these different types of incidents go together when it comes to power relationships and the normalisation of male dominance in the culture of an organisation.

In a certain context, a compliment can signal belittling or objectifying while at the same time, demonstrate a pecking order where women are accorded less value. That a woman’s appearance is commented on in a professional context, rather than her performance or professional role, also legitimises this behaviour for other people in the room. In a research context, this is usually described as the male once-over being given legitimacy, which affects everyone present, but in different ways.

Sexual harassment also occurs in academia, unfortunately. To address this, KTH together with the Karolinska Institute and Malmö University, have developed a joint programme to combat sexual harassment and gender-based vulnerability. As part of this, a comprehensive questionnaire survey covering the entire university sector will be performed in 2020 to chart incidents of sexual harassment. Both students and employees will be asked to complete the questionnaire, which will give us better data for change work and to improve the way these types of cases are handled.