Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Catholicism, Equality, and Harassment

Editor's Note: This reflection is from Christine Alwan. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristineAlwan.


In a previous post, I talked about what feminism meant for me. And I talked about why we, as Catholics, can be feminists. In fact, whether we use that label or not, we often espouse the loose principles of feminism if we are following our Catholic Faith. 

It does surprise me, however, that many Catholics, with our history commitment to truth and justice, assert that women in the United States are equal or that working women have no right to voice their concerns over injustices they face in the workplace when data and the law indicate the opposite. I’m often disappointed when I see so many people opposing some of these initiatives simply because the awareness of these issues with women who identify themselves as secular feminists. As critical thinkers, I would hope that we could separate the truth from the lie and celebrate what’s good about what they’re doing instead of resorting to the tired, feelings-based argument that all feminists are shrill, aggressive man-haters and that all they do is fundamentally evil. We can still point out the problems with their approach, but if we agree on ultimate goal of economic justice and upholding the dignity of women in the workplace, we should say that too. Catholics should be proponents of policies that ensure that such human dignity is acknowledged, respected, and upheld, regardless of who originally put those policies on the table. 

I am, first and foremost, a Catholic. I love being Catholic. I love Jesus. I would never, for a second, trade the teachings of the Church and my relationship with Jesus for the tenets of an earthly movement or political group. But I still celebrate and support some of the work feminists are doing. Because some of these initiatives are actually doing great work in upholding the dignity of the human person. If we are being 100% honest, I think we as Catholics need to beef up our efforts to empower women in the workplace, especially when it comes to issues like sexual harassment, issues of economic justice that are vital for women’s ability to fulfill their vocation in the workplace. Because, whether those issues have the “stigma” of feminism or not, they are very real issues pertaining to justice and the dignity of the human person. While Catholics may initially wish to steer clear of issues like sexual harassment because it’s typically associated with feminism, we should not and cannot do this. This issue is about upholding the dignity and worth of women who are working to develop their God-given talents and to support themselves and their families. This is a Catholic issue. It pertains to human dignity, justice, and upholding the rights of the abused and vulnerable. 

Furthermore, just because a policy is in place does not mean it is enforced or that the underlying social problem is addressed. Just because women legally are entitled to freedom from discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace doesn’t mean that there isn’t sexism or that such abuses of power don’t occur anymore. It doesn’t mean that the fight to uphold their dignity in the workplace is over. But it does mean that, as Catholics, we need to foster cultural changes in light of the policies that do exist. 

We have certainly come a long way in the United States when it comes to women’s equality before the law. But the existence of a law doesn’t mean that the dignity of women in the workplace is upheld to the same extent as her male colleagues. Although there is flawed legal recourse for victims of sexual harassment, the fact that victims – who are disproportionately women – have to endure the professional and emotional costs of sexual harassment is proof that women’s dignity and worth is still not upheld to the same extent, with the same frequency, as men in power. Men and women are different. But the extent to which we uphold their human dignity shouldn’t be. 

Women navigate different challenges in the professional world than men. We cannot acknowledge that men and women are different – albeit inherently equal in dignity and worth – without also acknowledging that the different challenges for both sexes are equally worth examining and addressing. We have to acknowledge that the role of women in the workplace still comes with its challenges in terms of respecting human dignity and the just treatment of one’s workers. I can think of no better way to illustrate this than by talking about sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment isn’t a thing of the past. Sexual harassment isn’t some “spicy” plotline for an episode of Mad Men. It’s something that happens to women like me, like you, like your sisters and friends and colleagues, more often than we would like to admit. And it’s a crime.

Sexual harassment often falls under one of three categories: unwanted sexual attention, sexual coercion, or gender harassment (Page and Pina 2015, 74; Fitzgerald et al. 1995; Gelfand et al. 1995). Sexual harassment became illegal in 1964 in the United States under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. But it’s definitely still happening. The Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission files an average of 85,700 cases per year. Approximately 30% of cases filed with the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission (EEOC) involve sexual harassment in the workplace, and 74.4% these cases are filed by women. And these are just the cases that make it to the level of a formal legal complaint. This doesn’t include the myriad of cases that are resolved internally with a company’s human resources department. 

Approximately 58% of working women are sexually harassed at some point in their careers (Leskinen, Cortina, and Kabat 2011). This is a sobering statistic, especially since the majority of sexual harassment incidents go unreported (McDonald et al. 2011, 280). Lest we are tempted to blame unrestrained sexual desires or the increasing number of women (and thus the likelier occurrence of sexual harassment of women), more recent studies show that sexual harassment is more often the result of perceptions of threat and the desire to reinforce traditional gender norms of male dominance in the workplace (Holland and Cortina 2013; McLaughlin et al. 2012; Tinkler 2013). That means sexual harassment has more to do with the power dynamics of sex than some uncontrollable sexual attraction or the presence of women in the workplace. Furthermore, an abuse of power motivated by fear of a woman using her God-given talents is not something we as Catholics can ever justify. 

In fact, sexual harassment oozes with the abuse of economic power. According to MacKinnon, “Economic power is to sexual harassment as physical force is to rape” (1979, 217-218), This powerful analogy forces one to acknowledge the truth: sexual harassment in the workplace relies on economic power. The offender uses this economic power to coerce, manipulate, or abuse the victim. And, since most companies have male leadership with the economic power to wield and abuse, they are most often the perpetrators.

The victim is held hostage to this economic power, either directly or indirectly. Economic power can impose heavy financial costs for victims and their families.  It is estimated that, while half of victims try to ignore sexually harassing behavior, 15% of victims end up leaving their jobs. Victims also experience a 2% decrease in productivity (McDonald et al. 2011; Larson 2006). Both decreased productivity and leaving the workplace – even temporarily – have adverse effects on women’s employment options, pay scale, and, more broadly, the gender gap in pay scales (Stone 2007, 11; Rose and Hartman 2004; Hewlett and Luce 2005; Blau and Kahn 1994; Padavic and Reskin 2002; Friedman 2006; Bliss 2006). 

It is one thing to choose to take time off if you firmly believe it benefits your family after, say, the birth of a child. Maybe you want to cut back on work and focus on being a mom. That’s 100% okay and incredibly beautiful. But that’s also 100% your choice (if you can afford it). But victims of harassment never wanted to be harassed. They didn’t “ask for it.” So, while some aspects of secular feminism are certainly problematic, I think feminists’ desire to acknowledge the particular economic injustices women still face in the workplace is a good one. And I think, as Catholics, we need to take a hard look at how we talk about and treat women faced with these injustices.

Like most economic justice issues, while the victims are certainly the people impacted the most, injustice does have a ripple effect. Sexual harassment has very real costs for a company and those who depend on its success to feed and support their families. When a victim leaves the company, this costs the former employer. Replacing highly qualified women professionals who leave the workplace due to sexual harassment can cost companies between 150 to 250 percent of the former employee’s salary (Stone 2007, 11; Friedman 2006; Bliss 2006). 

I think it’s time that Catholics make sexual harassment in the workplace an issue that we speak up about. You can’t be pro-woman and pro-family if a woman is practically forced out of the very job that is vital to the livelihood of that woman and her family. If we’re going to be serious about economic justice, we need to be serious about issues like sexual harassment that stem from the abuse of economic power.


While women are equal before the law and enjoy more political and economic rights than we ever have before, we are not equal in the extent to which colleagues, employees, and employers uphold our dignity. Saying that the fight for equality is over or unnecessary fails to acknowledge the very real, very painful lived experiences of women who are sexually harassed in the workplace. It denies them a space to grieve the violation of their human dignity, which their abuser has already violated. Let’s not take one more safe space away from them. Let’s not silence victims. 

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