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Climbing over the sex partition: How sexual harassment policies create a rift between men and women in the office




21st November 1951: Chief librarian Martin Prince and his secretary at work at Keystone Press Agency
21st November 1951: Chief librarian Martin Prince and his secretary at work at Keystone Press Agency
Fred Ramage/Getty Images

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Kim Elsesser starts her new book “Sex and the Office” with a hypothetical.

There’s an entry-level go-getter at a consulting firm – we’ll call him Joe. He’s taking the elevator with a senior manager when they discover a shared love of long-distance running. Later that day, that senior manager swings by Joe’s desk and asks if he wants to grab a beer, while also dropping a tidy little tip about a potential client. That senior manager winds up becoming Joe’s mentor – and eventually recommends him for a higher level job.

Now, imagine how that first exchange would’ve gone if Joe was actually a woman named Josephine. Would that manager have felt comfortable bonding in the elevator? Would he be comfortable asking Josephine to join him for a drink? What if she thinks it’s a date? What if she considers it sexual harassment?

Kim Elsesser calls this the “sex partition” – the barrier that springs up between male and female coworkers thanks to organizational policies on workplace relationships and sexual harassment. She says men and woman often aren’t sure how to act around each other at work … And that older men in positions of power are particularly aware of how expressions of support for young women could be misinterpreted as something more devious.

That means women have less access than their male counterparts – it’s harder for them to network, which means it’s harder for them to get promoted, to get a raise and to get recognition for their work.

But what’s the alternative? Should sexual harassment policies be less stringent? Should they be clearer? Or is the answer more women in positions of power who can mentor the female up-and-comers?

Guest:

Kim Elsesser, author of “Sex and the Office” (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2015). She is also a research scholar at UCLA, where she teaches courses on gender in the workplace