Sex at Work. What’s the problem?

no sex

What’s the place for sex at work? I guess the answer depends a lot on where you’re employed, no? In most places though, the answer is, emphatically: nowhere. Accompanied by a quizzical, suspicious look.


But at work, sex is often, ahem, a fact of life. Sexual tensions can and do arise, and employees are more aware than ever of the importance of respectful, professional conduct– especially in cross-sex work relationships. But sexual harassment has been much in the news of late. It’s a problem for women, clearly. But it’s no picnic for anyone and creates some tricky issues for men.


Last week, I had a piece in the Globe and Mail outlining how power structures at work can create ideal conditions for workplace harassment to thrive – witness the recent chapter of the Jian Ghomeshi saga. Perpetrators are often protected by their status – and by perceptions that they add so much value, that they’re above the rules.


But high profile scandals like this one, help to perpetuate another problem, more subtle, but equally insidious. Fear of perceived harassment can prevent men from sponsoring women.


A sponsor is someone in a position of power relative to yours. They’re situated to advocate for you, by recommending you for a big project or putting your name on the table for a promotion. A sponsor is your champion and your ally, your voice at the table, and their influence can go a long way. And the more senior they are, the more influence your sponsor can have in your career.


The trouble is that with only 33% of women in senior management, most of your best sponsor candidates are men.


Last week, I spoke to UCLA prof Kim Elsesser about her book Sex and the Office, which looks at what she calls the “sex partition” at work; and how it can prevent women from getting ahead. She identifies how the fear of perceived harassment can create unintentional barriers for women’s advancement. According to Elsesser; “two thirds of senior men report that they don’t want to be alone with a female junior employee. It becomes much harder to develop any kind of relationship with a male senior manager, let alone one where they’re going to sponsor you.”


So what to do? It’s a complex problem, to be sure. One step is to implement a formalized sponsorship program – such initiatives are proven to lead to women’s promotion. Women are 54% less likely than men to have a sponsor, but when they do, indicate higher career satisfaction, and increased likelihood to ask for a raise, promotion or stretch assignment. Having a formalized system in place removes some of the awkwardness that arises when individuals are left on their own to form sponsor relationships.


Sexual-harassment training needs a re-work too. Most of it is focused on legal awareness. This is all very well and good, but doesn’t teach people about the interpersonal skills needed to negotiate tricky situations. Sexual harassment training must go beyond liability issues to teaching employees how to decode the communication and interpersonal dynamics inherent in cross-sex work relationships. Communication, people. It ain’t easy, but it’s pretty critical.


What do you think? It’s a touchy topic, and I’d love to hear your comments.


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