Crossing The Line -- A Spectrum of What is and Isn't Sexual Misconduct

Today, David Brancaccio on Marketplace Morning Report interviewed me about a Harvard Business Review article I wrote in 1993. “The Memo Every Woman Keeps in her Desk,” is still relevant today. Women are still trying to find ways to inform senior management about challenges they face at work.

We also discussed a spectrum of sexual misconduct — the SSMW. It’s a taxonomy aimed at helping organizations deal constructively with sexual misconduct and to separate it from lesser offenses.

Daily we read about yet another person who has been accused of sexual misconduct.  And yet, except in the more obvious cases, people are unsure of where offensive or inappropriate behavior ends and sexual misconduct begins.  We're operating in a maze. We badly need clarity and direction. Aristotle distinguished between mistakes and wickedness. So can we. So can organizations. That’s why I developed the Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct — this time focusing on male-to-female offense and sexual misconduct.


Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work (SSMW) –  Kathleen Kelley Reardon, Ph.D.

Decisions about which category a behavior falls into depend on the situation, tone of delivery and nonverbal behaviors.  This is not a set of cut-and-dried categories. It’s a first-pass blueprint for organizations – a way to start talking about what is and isn’t sexual misconduct. Additional examples can be added, some moved. The point is to get this conversation underway.



Common off-the-cuff compliments on such things as hair style and dress. (“You look nice today;” “I like your haircut,” “That’s a nice outfit;” “That’s a good color on you.”

Awkward/Mildly Offensive:

Comments on gender differences such as: “You would say that as a woman,” “I suppose it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind;” “We can’t speak frankly around you women anymore.”

Offensive  (Not necessarily or overtly intentional) 

Holding a woman’s arm while talking

Uninvited hugs

Patronizing/dismissive/exclusionary behavior toward women

Sharing jokes about female blondes, brunettes, red-heads, etc.

Implying or stating women are distracted by family

Seriously Offensive (Intentional lowering of women’s value) 

Denigrating comments about women in general

Jokes about a woman’s limited intellect or skills due to her gender

Words like “ice queen” or “female mafia” when referring to women

Comments about about physical attributes used to insult or demean a woman

Evident Sexual Misconduct 

Looking a woman up and down in a sexually suggestive manner

Grabbing, rude patting and unwelcome holding

Unwelcome, unexpected kissing

Ignoring a woman’s expressed disinterest in a personal/intimate relationship and continuing to hassle her

Making or telling crude jokes that demean women

Describing women with such terms as “slut” or “frigid”

Trying to demean a woman by implying/claiming she uses her gender to advance career goals

Egregious Sexual Misconduct

Exposing genitals

Physical sexual behavior while a woman is present

Pressing against a woman suggestively

Threatening/implying career damage to a woman who refuses to engage in sex or sexual behavior

Forcing or coercing a woman to have sex

The New York Times article "How a Culture of Harassment Persisted on Ford's Factory Floors" by Susan Chira and Catrin Einhorn (Dec. 19, 2017) provides examples of what blue-collar women have endured for years.  The term "snitch-bitch" was used to describe a woman who complained about sexual misconduct.  Others were hounded, prevented from doing their jobs, and accused of "raping the company." One woman was referred to as "peanut butter legs."  When she asked why, she was told, "Not only is it the color of your legs, but it's the kind of legs you like to spread."

Where do such examples and others in the article fit in the SSMW?  That's what Ford and all companies need to ask -- about egregious ones and lesser offenses.  In time, people will get it.  They'll see that certain ways of talking to and acting around women are a bridge too far.  They'll know when they're in a danger zone and when they're over the line.  It doesn't take a genius to know what's rather rude and what's clearly crude. Both are bad, but the latter is worse.

The more examples companies place in the SSMW, the clearer misconduct will become. As the Ford story indicates, however, this exercise is not a one-shot effort.  It needs to happen over time and be revisited regularly.  Otherwise, companies slip back into old ways. Women experience retaliation and the workplace becomes hostile again.

Kathleen also blogs here.

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