Bully for men

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 42, Summer 2001.

Feminists struggled for many years to get the reality of sexual harassment recognised. However, since the antifeminist backlash a more generalised and de-gendered concept of ‘workplace bullying’ has arisen. Deborah Lee argues that we must not allow the specific nature of sexual harassment to be obscured.

In the 1970s, US radical feminists coined the term ‘sexual harassment’ to problematise women’s experiences of unwanted male sexual conduct — staring, leering, pinching, touching, innuendos, pornography and propositions, to give just a few examples. This was an important development, for while women had always talked amongst themselves about unwanted male sexual conduct, the term ‘sexual harassment’ had now publicly established the unacceptability of men viewing women as sex objects.

However, sexual harassment quickly became a more contentious subject. As Sue Wise and Liz Stanley explain in Georgie Porgie, in the 1980s the UK press reinterpreted sexual harassment as just normal male responses to sexually attractive women. Indeed, the Sun observed that, ‘while serious minded union officials…are getting their knickers in a twist about sexual harassment at work, the workers themselves say “Carry on groping” … “it makes the day more pleasant”…'(22 March 1982).

Subsequently, surveys demonstrated the sheer implausibility of such assertions. Women who had been sexually harassed reported devastating effects: shock, anxiety, anger, insomnia, anorexia, divorce and depression. Equally, many organisations realised that sexual harassment disrupts work, reduces productivity and quality of work, demoralises staff and causes financial loss related to increased staff turnover. You might think that the case against sexual harassment had been established — even if the problem itself remained prevalent!

Anti-feminist backlash

Yet, in the 1990s, the anti-feminist backlash attacked the concept of sexual harassment. As Alison Thomas and Celia Kitzinger explain in Sexual Harassment, codes of conduct designed to protect women from sexual harassment were derided as inspired by ‘feminazis’ who are the enemies of free speech — for example, students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology burned copies of the booklet Dealing with Harassment at MIT, which they described as a total abrogation of free expression. Anti-feminist texts — such as Katie Roiphe’s The Morning After – started to appear, seeking to reconceptualise sexual harassment as just sexual interaction: Roiphe insists that to find reciprocated sexual attention, women and men have to give and receive a certain amount of unwanted sexual attention. She proposes that instead of learning that men have no right to do terrible things to women, women should be learning how to deal with such incidents with strength and confidence. Essentially, 1990s anti-feminists wanted to make the concept of sexual harassment unavailable to women, restoring us to a position where unwanted male sexual conduct is ‘just something that happens’, rather than unacceptable conduct. Of course, feminists have responded strongly to the anti-feminist backlash against sexual harassment, offering a careful restatement of the dynamics of power and resistance in gender relations.

Enter workplace bullying

Yet as sexual harassment battled with the anti-feminists, workplace bullying was migrating to the UK from Scandinavia (the first UK self-help text, Bullying At Work, written by Andrea Adams, appeared in 1992). The term describes offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, abuse of power or unfair penal sanctions which makes the recipient feel upset, threatened, humiliated or vulnerable, which undermines their self-confidence and which may cause them to suffer stress. For instance, Andrea Adams related the experiences of a group of male university technicians. They were bullied by a male lecturer who removed their responsibilities, excluded them from decision-making, gave them menial tasks to complete and called them derisory nicknames. The university’s personnel director observed how badly these workers had been affected: ‘One was very gaunt, red-eyed and unshaven. …Another one of them constantly chain-smoked and seemed to have the shakes. A third was pale and withdrawn and seemed very uptight. …I saw [the bully] as the sort of person who, in wartime, would be taken on as a concentration camp commandant’. The concept of workplace bullying is useful because, prior to the 1990s, experiences such as these would have been understood as part of the social relations of paid work, ‘just something that happens’, rather than a legitimate reason for complaint.

Subsequently, the concept of workplace bullying has become a media sensation. Scores of sympathetic newspaper articles have appeared stressing the unacceptability of this form of workplace harassment — sexual harassment stories, meanwhile, are not so topical. A strong discourse of physical violence and psychological damage has been invoked in workplace bullying articles: for example, ‘Thousands live in terror of bullies at work’ (Evening Standard, 7/7/93), ‘Office warfare and how to survive’ (Guardian, 15/4/95). A picture foregrounding a very large, angry man twisting the ear of a very small, scared man illustrated one article on bullying in universities (Times Higher Education Supplement, 14/3/97). However, at no point in this particular text is there any suggestion that bullied academics are weak individuals. Workplace bullying has not, therefore, been presented by the press as evidence of ‘over-sensitivity’ by workers — even though there is plenty of scope for this in the way bullying is commonly understood, as illustrated by the type of picture accompanying the THES article. This situation is in direct contrast to early media interest in sexual harassment, as described above, which portrayed sexual harassers as just ordinary men having a joke — and sexually harassed women, of course, as humourless individuals. So, why have sexual harassment and workplace bullying been presented so differently?

The answer, I think, is woman-hatred. As is well-known, the vast majority of sexual harassment victims are women — all women will have encountered at least one instance of sexual harassment. In contrast, in 1995, the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) conducted 400 telephone interviews, largely with professional staff (49 per cent of whom were women), and found that only 7 per cent of men and women were aware of men being sexually harassed by women in their workplace. Sexual harassment is, therefore, very clearly a ‘women’s issue’, whereas a particularly significant aspect of the workplace bullying discourse which has emerged in the UK is that it has stressed that anyone can be a victim or perpetrator — men and women. So, given that workplace bullying is not just a ‘woman’s problem’, it is not easily trivialised. The presence of male workplace bullying victims makes workplace bullying appear to be real workplace harassment: action must be taken because men are suffering.

However, Scandinavian research has revealed that more women than men encounter workplace bullying. How has this affected the developing presentation of workplace bullying? Effectively, what has happened is that gender has been recognised merely in order to classify it as relatively unimportant. For example, a Scandinavian researcher, Heinz Leymann, has suggested that the majority of bullies are men. Leymann proposes that the reason why women more frequently than men experience workplace bullying by a member of the opposite sex may simply reflect the fact that most managers are men and are, therefore, in a position to act out behaviour which is experienced as workplace bullying. The ‘glass ceiling’ effect has been deployed to argue that being bullied is only loosely linked to gender.

I would argue that this in fact demonstrates one way in which workplace bullying is very clearly gendered: gender is embedded in organisations. As Susan Halford and Pauline Leonard remark in their excellent new book Gender, Power and Organisations: ‘organisational structures do not come to reproduce male power unwittingly, but are in fact designed for this purpose or, at least, actively maintained with this in mind’ (p. 50).

Yet workplace bullying activists are reluctant to recognise that aspects of our identities (sex, ‘race’, sexual orientation, age, disability etc.) are especially relevant to workplace bullying. Indeed, I presented a paper discussing the gender dynamics of workplace bullying at a workplace harassment conference in the late 1990s — the keynote speaker (a Scandinavian male) glared as I spoke and refused to make my acquaintance afterwards. Perhaps workplace bullying researchers do not want to appear to be interested in the feminist concern of gender oppression at a time of anti-feminist backlash — workplace bullying might become tainted by association.

Nevertheless, that aspects of our identities have been swept under the carpet in the workplace bullying discourse is problematic, for we cannot discard parts of our identities when we enter the workplace. I am never just a university lecturer, I am always a white, female, heterosexual, young, able-bodied university lecturer. A small minority of male undergraduate students, for instance, feel justified in showing disrespect for me that they would never exhibit towards my white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-aged male colleagues. If I were to refer to such experiences as bullying, I would automatically just become a worker: my identity as a woman, which is actually integral to my experience, would be made merely incidental.

This said, some workplace bullying commentators have recognised the relevance of aspects of our identities in workplace bullying experiences. For instance, Tim Field’s self-help text Bully In Sight says that workplace bullying may include inappropriate remarks, comments, aspersions and suggestions about a person’s gender, ‘race’, colour, beliefs, sexual orientation, background, upbringing etc.; jokes of a sexist, racist, ageist or similar nature whose objective is to humiliate. Furthermore, a number of UK trade unions have said that sexual harassment and racial harassment may be involved in workplace bullying.

This is problematic: saying that sexual harassment may be involved in workplace bullying obscures the specificity and visibility of sexual harassment. Of course there are interactions between types of harassment, but it is vital not to conflate types of harassment in a way which obscures their distinctive dynamics. The interpretation ‘sexual harassment’ has always been effective in demonstrating the unacceptability of women’s experiences of unwanted male sexual conduct and the interpretation ‘workplace bullying’ is now being equally effective in condemning allegations of poor work performance which are levelled at workers.

At present, the concept of workplace bullying — which actively seeks to discount the relevance of aspects of our identities to our experiences of workplace harassment — fails to make a contribution to the project of eradicating women’s oppression. I would tentatively suggest that, perhaps, as more feminists research workplace bullying, the workplace bullying discourse will be less able to ignore the gender dynamics of such experiences.

Reclaim sexual harassment

Nevertheless, feminist involvement in the workplace bullying debate must be accompanied by a reclaiming of sexual harassment from the anti-feminist backlash. Feminist commentators have proposed that the concept of sexual harassment needs revisiting, to make it more useful to contemporary women. Perhaps we might revisit Sue Wise and Liz Stanley’s definition of sexual harassment, made in Georgie Porgie, as not necessarily ‘sexual’ behaviour, but rather, ‘any and all unwanted and intrusive behaviour of whatever kind which men force on women — or boys on girls, or men on girls, or boys on women’. Or we might consider new ways to define unwanted male conduct. For instance, Debbie Epstein has said that the word ‘sexual’ in ‘sexual harassment’ obscures the experience of ‘sexist harassment’ which is not overtly or obviously sexual in content or form. She feels, therefore, that the term ‘sexist harassment’ is a useful way of making visible a form of unwanted male conduct towards women which is currently not always visible in common-sense understandings of ‘sexual harassment’.

There are, then, ways in which our conceptualisations of unwanted male conduct might be developed — yet the most important point is that feminists must strive to keep the problem of sexual harassment visible: the concept of workplace bullying must not be allowed to eclipse over twenty years of feminist research and activism against sexual harassment.


Andrea Adams Bullying at Work (Virago, 1992)

Debbie Epstein ‘Keeping them in their place: hetero/sexist harassment, gender and the enforcement of heterosexuality’, in Alison Thomas and Celia Kitzinger (eds) Sexual Harassment (Open University Press, 1997).

Tim Field Bully in Sight (Success Unlimited, 1996)

Susan Halford and Pauline Leonard Gender, Power and Organisations (Palgrave, 2001)

Heinz Leymann ‘Mobbing and psychological terror at workplaces’ Violence and Victims 5/2, 1990.

Katie Roiphe The Morning After (Hamish Hamilton, 1994)

Alison Thomas and Celia Kitzinger (eds) Sexual Harassment (Open University Press, 1997)

Sue Wise and Liz Stanley Georgie Porgie (Pandora, 1987)