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Sexual harassment: putting women back in their place?

Sexual harassment: putting women back in their place?

Professor Susan Marlow

Professor Susan Marlow
Nottingham University Business School

Within advanced economies, gains since the 1960s with regard to equality regulation, educational attainments and challenges to traditional gender divisions have coalesced, such that we now see female astronauts, prime ministers and even professional boxers. Since the 2000s such shifts have been captured under the notion of 'neoliberal postfeminism', whereby individual agency, skills and determination have rendered structural discrimination and gender challenges redundant as these days, women just need to 'lean in' to succeed. Consequently, there is a rhetoric of empowerment illustrated within the popular media by white, middle class hetrosexual liberated women choosing their careers, partners and determining their own life chances. For as women now know: 'you're worth it'.

Yet, the spate of recent highly disturbing disclosures regarding endemic sexual harassment and assault, largely against women, contradicts prevailing assumptions of the independent, empowered individual, reducing her to a sexual object. How can women make sense of a rhetoric of meritocracy in a reality of sexualised male power and domination?   


Sexual harassment is not about attraction or the initiation of a respectful relationship; it is about power. It uses sexualised behaviour to dominate and belittle. While we may associate the recent focus upon sexual harassment with high profile figures, it has been an issue for women over time immemorial. So why has it come to the fore now?

Perhaps it is because an issue which has previously been taken for granted and 'managed' sits ill with the contemporary notion of women's empowerment. It creates a 'gendered dilemma' as women attempt to align messages of empowerment while experiencing harassment. This dilemma is, moreover, often camouflaged by sections of the media condemning women for misconstruing playful banter and harmless innuendo from male colleagues who will soon be too frightened to even speak to women!


The spate of recent disclosures regarding endemic sexual harassment and assault contradicts prevailing assumptions of the independent, empowered woman.

Weinstein emerged as an issue when one woman articulated this dilemma and gained an audience for her protest supported by many other high profile women sharing their experiences, prompting movements such as #metoo. Such movements, associated largely with young, attractive, heterosexual white women, have certainly put sexual harassment and sexual assault on the agenda. As more revelations emerge, they challenge the popular idea of the empowered independent postfeminist woman. Whether such revelations, however, will change behaviour on a broader scale is questionable.

Given the power ramifications and embarrassment associated with claims of sexual harassment, plus fears of disbelief and negative repercussions, any 'trickle down' from high profile cases is likely to be slow. As Mary Beard noted, it is not so easy for those further down the social scale with little voice or visibility to challenge the behaviour of powerful men. However, by raising awareness and prompting organisations to review policy and practices in a context where such behaviour becomes less tolerated, there will be incremental changes. Undoubtedly, this issue will be on the agenda for some time and high profile heads have rolled; yet, this is a drop in the ocean of harassment, suggesting contemporary claims of women's empowerment are indeed fragile. 

With the Weinstein scandal bringing the issue of sexual harassment to the forefront of the entertainment industry, the women of Hollywood have been leading the fight for gender equality through movements such as Time's Up. This month, Award-winning actress and Nottingham alumna Ruth Wilson (History, 2003) appeared on BBC Radio 4's Today show to speak about a new set of guidelines launched by the British Film Institute (BFI) and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) to tackle bullying and harassment.


Listen to Ruth on BBC Radio 4's Today