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No Thanks: Sexual Harassment in School and at Work


Some descriptions of a successful:

assertive pushy
committed to job doesn't know when to stop
speaks up won't shut up
man of the world has been around
climbed the ladder of success how did she get there?

Why is a woman sometimes described negatively for the same characteristic a man has? Why, in North America and Europe, is one out of every two females during her academic or working life harassed because of her gender? Why does a women enter an organization at the same level as a man, but often not advance to the same level in the same amount of time, even if she has the same skills?

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A debate in the classroom on harassment
These questions rang through the conference hall at the American University in Cairo where a group of women gathered to discuss women's status in regard to discrimination, gender-inclusiveness and, most of all, sexual harassment. On the panel were professors, a representative from the campus Equal Opportunity office (with a copy of campus policy) and a psychologist. In the audience were Egyptian women and girls of all ages who spoke up and nodded their heads in agreement. Terms like "discrimination" and "sexual harassment" sometimes need clarification because they can mean different things to different people. This is because, as professor Clarissa Burts suggested, there's a "gray area" that surrounds interactions between you and other people. What one person considers "discrimination," another person might consider "making sure you fit in." What one person considers "harmless flirting," you might consider "harassment."

For example, if somebody compliments you on how you look in your outfit, or touches you on the shoulder, is that harassment? What about jokes about "dumb blondes," women drivers or Monica Lewinsky? Are these considered harassing statements? What if someone persists in asking you for a date? Under AUC campus policy, said Margaret Zohni (from the Equal Opportunity office), actions like these are considered sexual harassment if they are deliberate, repeated and UNWELCOME, and if they interfere with your ability to study or work. If someone at a higher level makes requests for sexual favors or dates in return for job security, that's harassment. IF YOU FEEL FINE about compliments, touches, gender-based comments or persistent requests for dates, then it's not considered sexual harassment.

Vocabulary box

discrimination - when one is treated differently than others of the same level; this can be in relation to factors like race, color, creed, gender, national origin, age or whether one has a disability
sexual harassment - unwelcome behavior, deliberate or repeated, that interferes with one's ability to study or work; for example, someone in a position of power asks sexual favors of someone in a lower position, in return for job security or advancement
gender inclusiveness - the ability of men and women to participate equally, either in class, at work or in a group

The topic of sexual harassment brought up a lot of emotion, and started to bring up ideas about gender relations. Students asked heated questions: "How can you change people's attitudes? Not with a piece of paper!" " It might be policy here, but out there, on the street, you'll still get harassed!" "I'm really mad, I tell you. It's starting to get to me. I feel like I want to take it out on the next person!"

The highest levels of sexual harassment in North America and Europe were directed at women in nontraditional work environments, such as construction or the military. These women were perceived to be "asking for it." In Egypt during the last twenty years, it has become more and more culturally accepted for women to work in traditional roles like government ministries and schools. However, in nontraditional roles, said Dr. Aziz, a woman "has to have determination and security. She has to know how to psychologically manipulate the situation so it works in her favor."

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These Egyptian women are doing something about harassment
Dr. Burts said that instead of letting the "gray area" dominate our relationships, we must encourage "clarity, self-assertiveness and being clear about our comfort level." Individuals must define what their boundaries are, she said, because "the sexual aspects of our beings can cause confusion. Both men and women fall into problems.... We have to be responsible for ourselves, and women have been socialized to not take responsibility, or let other people guide or orchestrate their sexuality."

What do you think? Are policies about discrimination and harassment on the books because, as Burts thinks, "they're a Band-Aid: they pat women on the head and say 'we're taking care of you?'" Does the publication of policies about discrimination and harassment "step-by-step change the culture," like Margaret Zohni said? Or do they fail to address the real issue, which is how men and women relate to one another, both as individuals and within the society or culture?

How does this discussion relate to your own life? What stereotypes do you hold about women and men? How do you relate to your peers, your friends, your family, your teachers, your boss? I hope that these questions encourage you to think about answers you can apply to your life. My idea is that lists like the ones mentioned in the beginning need to be replaced with ones like this:

Some descriptions of a successful:

acts on beliefs
clear when talking about goals
widespread interests
responsible and valuable at every level


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


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Team - The Story of the Suez Canal

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