Sexual harassment is shaped by more than personal style, gender expectations, or sexual scripts; organizational structures and overall context can make certain behaviors more likely and can provide climates that foster sexual harassment.
Organizational contexts (the structure of the organization, the social norms of the organization, and the power differentials inherent in it) play an important role in the facilitation and maintenance of sexual harassment (Acker, 1990). The prevailing organizational climate most influences a woman’s overt coping response to sexual harassment (i. e., whether she uses assertiveness with the aggressor, appeases or excuses him, or seeks institutional relief) (Fitzgerald et al., 1995).
Traditionally, theoretical models of organizations assumed that organizations are and should be desexualized. With the advent of industrialization, sexuality was viewed as a distraction and a barrier to productivity (Burrell & Hearn, 1989) and thus was banned from the workplace. Policies such as those banning office romances were instituted to regulate conduct deemed inappropriate for the workplace (Taylor & Conrad, 1992). From this perspective, sexuality is unimportant and irrelevant to the organization. Workers engage in sexual behaviors on their own time and in nonwork settings.
Often the desexualizing of formal organizations is more theoretical than real. The underlying assumptions about people and relationships more common to traditional masculine models of behavior are incorporated in unrecognized ways into the structures of the organization. What actually happens is that male norms and masculine behaviors are imbedded in models of expected organizational behavior. The myth of desexualization facilitated the silent incorporation of a male model of sexuality in the underlying structures ordering participants’ conceptions of how people should behave within such organizations (Taylor & Conrad, 1992). Socially constructed male attributes such as aggressiveness and competitiveness became associated with success in business. Within organizations the spillover of traditional conceptions of sex and gender led to occupations being divided into masculine and feminine, male-type and female-type jobs (Taylor & Conrad, 1992). Work organizations thus replicated the larger social context.
An alternative model of organizational theory proposes that there cannot and should not be a distinction between organizations and their social contexts. Sexuality is an integral part of the social fabric in which organizations are woven. In traditional theory, gender has been reduced to an intervening variable in the study of organizations, thus denying that sexuality is a fundamental human identity and that gender is imbedded in organizations (Burrell &. Hearn, 1989). People bring with them their prescribed gender roles, with men replicating the patriarchal system and women assuming traditional roles that are congruent with the external world (Burrell & Hearn, 1989). Sexuality cannot be banned from the business arena, but rather requires recognition and response.
Taking this alternative view, feminist theorists have challenged the normalized bureaucracy with its emphasis on aggressive competition and impersonality and have looked at such suppressed feminine elements of sexuality as cooperation and dialogue as alternative ethical principles (Martin, 1988, as cited in Taylor & Conrad, 1992). Burrell and Hearn (1989) argue for the feasibility of studying sexual norms—the extent to which sexuality is an element in organizational goals, and ultimately whose sexual and other interests are being served in the organization.