Ombud’s Corner: sexual harassment - who is concerned?

About one year since I last covered the topic of sexual harassment, I am returning to this theme again as it continues to be raised in the Ombud office. This trend is likely to continue as long as everyday sexism and harassment remain hidden and our workplace culture persists in turning a blind eye to these issues… 


In previous articles, we discussed how to say “stop” to unwelcome behaviour and what to do when the situation persists. We also discussed what is meant by harassment, defined in CERN’s Operational Circular No. 9 as “…unwelcome behaviour that has the effect of violating a person’s dignity and/or creating a hostile work environment…” Finally, we underlined the need to promote a peer culture that recognises the early signs of any behaviour that risks deteriorating into harassment. So, what more is there to say?

Sexual harassment in the workplace remains an invisible issue as people continue to feel uncomfortable about tackling it and often hesitate to speak up for fear of not being taken seriously or, worse still, being labelled as humourless or troublemakers. Even when they do find the courage to voice their concerns, they find themselves dismissed as the problem is belittled and their experience gets buried as just another example of the everyday sexism that is so familiar that it has been normalised.

Everyday sexism is insidious and can take many forms in the workplace: it could be the colleague who insists on standing too close to you in the coffee queue, the co-worker who comments on your appearance as you prepare to make a professional presentation, the group who remain silent when a team member greets your arrival with an off-colour joke or the supervisor who holds your hands to reassure you when a critical piece of your work goes wrong. Whatever form it takes, it can be said to be inappropriate behaviour if it leaves you feeling in some way humiliated or at a disadvantage.

“I really feel uncomfortable when you do/say … – please stop!”

Colleagues who have had the courage to speak up in such situations have reported a variety of reactions to this request, ranging from denial: “Come on – it was a compliment” to challenge: “Aren’t you over-reacting?” or a put down: “Man-up – it was just a bit of fun” or even an abuse of power: “I could see that you were upset and I wanted to comfort you”. Others have reported that this request was either laughed at or simply ignored by those concerned at the time.

The examples that have been brought to the Ombud office tell us that, despite this behaviour being proscribed by our Code of Conduct, everyday sexism persists in our workplace; that, while it affects mainly women, some men also report being subjected to it; and that it has been so far normalised into our workplace culture that attempts to put a stop to it have tended to fail.

So how does this concern you? Have you ever been in a situation where you witnessed this kind of behaviour? Have you ever asked any of your colleagues whether they have experienced this type of harassment and then really stopped to listen to what they say? And how would you react if one of your colleagues were to actually share such an experience with you?

A single incidence of everyday sexism may or may not amount to sexual harassment but there can be no doubt that a workplace climate that tolerates this type of behaviour through a culture of acceptance is one that exposes its members to the risk of potential harassment.

Whilst CERN has established channels by which to address harassment through either informal or formal procedures, it remains up to each of us as individuals to support all efforts to put a stop to it and not allow everyday sexism to persist. It is not only a matter of behaviour that has to be challenged and addressed; it is also the underlying mindset that needs to change.

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All previous Ombud's Corners can be accessed in the Ombud's blog.

by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill