Women are rarely accused of sexual harassment, and there's a reason why

(USA TODAY) -- In the fire-hose torrent of sexual harassment scandals we are staggering under these days, one thing stands out as a common factor in all the cases: The accused are men. 

"One of the reasons it is men who harass women, and sometimes other men, is that this is about power and overwhelmingly (workplace) upper management is male, so the positions of power are disproportionately occupied by men and the bottom is disproportionately occupied by women," says Abigail Saguy, professor of sociology and gender studies at UCLA and author of the 2003 book, What is Sexual Harassment? 

You may be thinking at this point... well, duh, this is something we all know instinctively. Women don't do this kind of thing — grope, talk dirty, assault, sexually coerce, even rape their work colleagues. It's a Y chromosome kind of thing, right?

But not so fast. Franklin Raddish, a South Carolina Baptist pastor with a nationwide following, last month declared, as a means of supporting Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore (who lost Tuesday), that accusations of sexual harassment against men in politics and Hollywood amounted to a "war on men."

"More women are sexual predators than men," opined Raddish. "Women are chasing young boys up and down the road, but we don't hear about that because it's not PC."

He provided no evidence of this because, well, there isn't any.

Still, there are exceptions that prove the rule: On Friday, a Democratic candidate for Congress in Kansas dropped out of her race after The Kansas City Star found out she had been accused in a 2005 lawsuit of sexually harassing and retaliating against a male subordinate who rejected her advances when she was a corporate executive.

Andrea Ramsey was not a party to the lawsuit, which was settled and closed, and she denied she sexually harassed the man. But she dropped out of the race under pressure from the Democratic Party's "zero tolerance standard" on harassment allegations, thus becoming the only woman so far to be publicly accused. 

Which leads to the question: What are the numbers on women accused of sexual harassment? Has anyone conducted scientific surveys and found some? What’s the reason why it appears the vast majority of people accused of workplace sexual harassment are men?

And what's the reason few men ever file formal complaints? 

"Pride gets in the way," says Todd Harrison, a partner in a California firm that handles thousands of employment-law cases per year. "Most good plaintiffs attorneys who handle discrimination and harassment claims take on female-to-male harassment and the same (laws) apply. It’s just a matter of whether the men who are victims want to come forward."

There are few numbers available about women sexual harassers, and some of the numbers available are more than a decade old.

"It is extremely rare — it does happen but it is extremely rare," says Genie Harrison, a Los Angeles-based attorney who specializes in workplace sexual-harassment cases. "Men can be victims and women can be abusers, and I've represented victims where a woman was the harasser, but I would say it's at best a 99.9%-to-.01% ratio."

Various government agencies, such as the military, the federal employee system or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, keep track of complaints of workplace sexual harassment but they generally focus on the accusers, not the accused.

— In the most recent data available from the EEOC, there were 6,758 complaints of sexual harassment allegations received by the commission in 2016, and a little more than 16% were filed by men. But the data don't say who did the harassing — a woman or another man. 

Moreover, EEOC data do not provide a comprehensive picture of the entire country. Plus, the agency estimates that most people, male or female, who have experienced harassment (more than 80%) never file a formal complaint about it.

— The U.S. Merit System Protection Board, an independent agency tasked with protecting the nation's 2 million civilian federal employees, has been conducting surveys of federal employees on workplace sexual harassment since 1980. Its most recent survey was in 2016 but work on producing a report on the findings has stalled because the Trump administration has not yet appointed two members of the three-member board.

But its last report, in 1994, found that 19% of the men who responded to a survey reported they had experienced some form of unwanted sexual attention during the preceding two years. The report also found that 65% of those male accusers said they were harassed by women, and 1% of the women accusers said they were harassed by women. 

— The Defense Department also tracks sexual harassment complaints in the armed services and National Guard; its last report, in 2016, showed that a total of 601 complaints were received in the previous year, with 415 alleged offenders reported for 326 substantiated complaints. Most of the harassers were male (396 or 95%); only 19 were female (5%).

Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for workplace justice at the National Women's Law Center in Washington, who handles workplace sexual harassment issues, agrees that women harassers are a "minority of cases" because women are less likely to exercise power over men at work.

"I've never worked with a client where a woman was the harasser; we're a women’s-rights organization so the individuals who tend to reach out to us are women," Martin says. "And women who target other women (for harassment) is an unusual fact pattern."

Jennifer Berdahl, a professor in the business school at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who studies the harassment of men, says harassment is also about gender and how society defines it. Males learn a sense of superiority over females from the time they are children, she says.

"Being a man means being superior to a woman and dominating women sexually or otherwise; sexual harassment is taking that (thinking) to an extreme," Berdahl says. "It's possible there's a rare woman who might get off on dominating a person like that but men are socialized from the age of 3 to think of themselves as being 'a real man,' defined as dominating women."

In her research, she says, she's found that the most common way a woman would harass a man is to question his manhood. For many men, she says, being scorned as "feminine" or "weak" is too humiliating to report.

Another source of limited data on women harassers: Law firms that specialize in employment law and sexual harassment cases, such as Perona, Langer, Beck, Serbin, Mendoza & Harrison in Long Beach, Calif. 

Todd Harrison, a partner in the firm, estimates he handles about 150 cases of employment law a year, and about 65% of them are sex harassment cases. Of those, 10% — or less than 10 cases per year — involve women as the accused harassers, he said. 

"Sexual harassment is not just about sexual innuendo or jokes or pats on the butt, it’s about power and intimidation, so the cases I’ve handled (involving women harassers), it’s normally a woman in a control position and using that power to intimidate men," Harrison says.

"Sometimes there are sexual overtures, inappropriate touching without consent, offers for quid pro quo or sex for promotion," he added. "A lot of times it’s a powerful woman in an organization who will talk down or treat a man different from his female counterparts."

But men can be reluctant to  come forward to complain due to fear of mockery, he says. Men may also buy into the notion that female-on-male harassment isn't even possible.

"Embarrassment is always an issue," Harrison says. "Societal norms say men are supposed to be able to handle this. But we have men (clients) who say, 'It’s just not fair. We’re always accused of it, here's a situation where we've been victimized by a person in authority.' "

What about if the harasser is a woman accused of harassing another woman?

"For woman-on-woman, the only difference is that if it’s a lesbian issue, I don’t know that (power and) position really matters," he says. "Often times, it's just (a case of) two co-workers involving sexual harassment."

Human behavior is contextual, says Saguy, and that's why fixing the longstanding problem of workplace sexual harassment (by either gender) requires changing the culture and not just laws. 

Generally, she says, men don’t harass when they have less power over women or when the boss is a woman. "Changing a culture is not easy either, but it would be easier to change the culture and hold people accountable if we had more women in power."

If you have ever experienced or witnessed sexual misconduct while working in the entertainment industry or news media, we’d like to hear from you. Send us a secure tip using the instructions at newstips.usatoday.com

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