University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Who Speaks Up Against Harassment in the Workplace?

Woman stressed at work with people in the background
March 26, 2024  |  By Kaslyn Tidmore; Christopher Rosen

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When asked the question, “What’s your personal definition of a male ally? How would you describe this to your mates or peers?” the head of HR Business Partnering at Sportsbet, David Lyons, said this: “A male ally is any man that is willing to advocate and speak up in support of gender equality. Speaking out could result in mixed responses, it could result in being ostracized, it could result in being laughed at, it could result in agreement – but as a true advocate, regardless of the response – you choose to speak up.”  

Male allies have played a critical role in achieving the more gender inclusive world that we live in today. Allies refer to members of a more dominant social group who promote justice and support those from social groups who are marginalized and mistreated. Because they typically hold more social power than women, it is crucial that men speak out against gender harassment that they see. Despite the progress women and their male allies have made with gender equality and sexual harassment in the workplace, women often continue to feel afraid and angry in their place of work. Despite fewer instances of physical forms of harassment, undertones of gender inequality still invade many workplaces through passing remarks and “jokes” at the expense of women. Often passed off as “watercooler talk,” gender harassment is still an issue that most workplaces face. 

When workplaces tolerate this behavior, it leaves both the victims and the bystander with feelings of anger and fear. In their article titled, “Who Speaks Up When Harassment Is in the Air? A Within-Person Investigation of Ambient Harassment and Voice Behavior Work,” Professor Christopher Rosen from the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, Allison Gabriel (Purdue University), Nitya Chawla (University of Minnesota), Young Eun Lee (Florida State University), Joel Koopman (Texas A&M University), and Elena Wong (University of Arizona) analyze the effects of gender harassment in a workplace.  

What Makes Gender Harassment Different?  

Gender harassment is a form of sexual harassment that is not intent on soliciting sexual cooperation; instead, its sole purpose is to demean and condescend victims based on their gender. This form of harassment is harder to identify and stand up against. It can be difficult for those who are not directly targeted to pinpoint condescending innuendos or snide remarks that are thinly disguised as humor

Because of this type of harassment's less obvious nature, its effects are not only felt deeply by direct victims but also by the entire office. While most previous research on gender harassment primarily focuses on direct victims, this research examines the effects that ambient – or “in the air” – harassment has on those who witness it. 

Knowing that an organization tolerates this form of harassment can damage the workplace and affect the behavior and mental health of employees.  As such, understanding the impact that ambient harassment has on those who witness it is a critical step in learning how to create a more positive work environment.  

How Do People React to Ambient Harassment?  

In their research, the authors found that women in organizations that are more tolerant of gender harassment have higher levels of both anger and fear. The more tolerant an organization is to gender harassment, the higher the levels of ambient harassment will be, meaning it is more likely to occur in this type of environment. Ambient harassment in a workplace causes female employees to fear coming to work, because they know that if a co-worker says something inappropriate, there will be no repercussions. This fear causes women to be less likely to speak out against the indiscretions in fear that they might be the next target.  

Anger, however, promoted a different response in women. In fact, higher anger levels were connected to a high likelihood of speaking out against gender harassment. While responses based on fear are primarily more deliberate and thought out more slowly, responses from anger are usually quicker and more impulsive. Although this type of response is not usually as well-received or beneficial because it is typically a more aggressive approach, anger nevertheless represents an intentional attempt to address this problem and is still essential to creating a better workplace.   

Though women are the primary targets of gender harassment, this study examines the impact that ambient harassment has on both men and women. Although men are also victims of gender harassment, they showed more of a reaction to ambient harassment. Particularly in higher tolerance organizations, men are more afraid of being grouped with those who are perpetuating the harassment. Because of this, men are more likely to speak out against harassment out of anger. These reactions are important in the fight against gender harassment and make men critical allies against this issue.

What Can My Organization Do? 

Because men tend to hold a greater social status than women, it is critical for men to speak up when they witness harassment. When women feel as though they can trust the men around them to hold others accountable, they feel safer and more welcome in their place of work. When this happens, female employees feel more motivated and excited to be in the office and are less likely to wait in fear of the next time a co-worker gets put down based on their gender. 

To make sure that employees are satisfied with their environment, companies must work to create an environment where proactive steps are taken against gender harassment and employees can be taken seriously when they mention these issues. It is crucial that men take responsibility by using their place in the world to speak up for those who do are not listened to because doing so increases the likelihood of women speaking out also. Using your voice to speak out against injustice—“regardless of the response”—is a crucial part of creating a workplace that is accepting and inviting of all people. 

Matt WallerChristopher C. Rosen is a professor and the John H. Tyson Chair in Business Management in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. He received a B.A. in Psychology and Economics from Washington and Lee University, his M.A. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Human Resource Management from Appalachian State University, and his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Akron. His research covers a broad range of topics, including employee well-being, self-regulation, and organizational politics. He currently serves as an associate editor for Journal of Management and is chair of the Human Resources Division of the Academy of Management

Kaslyn TidmoreKaslyn Tidmore is a first-year graduate student at the University of Arkansas, earning her masters in Public Relations and Advertising. Before joining the master’s program at the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, Kaslyn graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in Print Journalism with a minor in Editing and Publishing. While earning her B.A., she interned with many publications, including Parker County Today Magazine, WedLinkMedia, Modern Luxury, and the school’s newspaper, the OU Daily. She currently works as a graduate assistant at the Walton College of Business.