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By on April 16, 2021

Questions About Preventing Sexual Harassment in Virtual, At-Home Workspaces

When the COVID-19 pandemic stay-at-home orders started and schools and offices sent people home, concerns arose about “Zoom bombing,” as youth and adults were harassed by unwelcome Zoom guests spewing slurs and showing violent materials. As the pandemic and associated changes to working environments have persisted over the past 13 months and counting, concerns and questions about sexual harassment during remote work remain as workers report more harassment and boundary violations. Additionally, the theme of this year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) is We Can Build Safe Online Spaces, calling attention to the issue of and providing resources for how to prevent sexual harassment and assault in virtual environments. PreventConnect will soon host a web conference exploring conversations about and prevention implications for sexual harassment prevention in remote work and educational settings. Below are questions and resources that have emerged over the past year regarding sexual harassment in virtual, remote workplaces.

What was the state of workplace sexual harassment before the COVID-19 pandemic?

Shortly before the first U.S. stay-at-home orders were enacted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the report National Prevalence of Sexual Violence by a Workplace-Related Perpetrator. PreventConnect hosted a web conference diving into the results of this report and exploring implications of and advancements in prevention in workplaces. The study finds that 1 in 18 women and 1 in 5 men have experienced sexual violence by a workplace-related perpetrator at some points in their lives. The study also notes that information-only seminars or anti-harassment sessions in the workplace may not be enough to prevent sexual harassment, and addressing root causes of violence like social status and power are important for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has a key findings report on this study, too.

How has sexual harassment changed in virtual, at-home workplaces since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Numerous stories have circulated in the past year documenting how virtual, at-home workplaces have heightened risks for some forms of sexual harassment. In general, there has been a rise in online violence against women since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Decentralized and home-based workplaces have blurred the lines between work and home boundaries, which some are reporting as a contributor to sexual harassment. The sexual harassment being perpetrated during COVID-19 also capitalizes on power and financial insecurity, where workers are reporting that marginalized employees are being bullied into or denied furlough in hopes they’ll quit. Tech workers report a rise in gender- and racially-based harassment since working remote, and also reported a more hostile work environment. Survey responses from tech workers indicate that working longer hours during the pandemic, unclear boundaries between work and private life, and fewer witnesses as drivers of workplace harassment and a hostile work environment.

What are the implications for prevention?

Sexual harassment in virtual spaces in harmful on its own and can be prevented on its own, but the influence of online environments extends to offline lives and communities, and its prevention can, too. The opposite applies as well, where strategies to prevent violence in person can also be adapted to prevent sexual harassment and assault in online spaces, too. Examples of prevention activities from before the pandemic were shared during a previous PreventConnect web conference, but as the context of work environments has changed, questions about prevention remain. EVERFI’s blog provides tangible tips for things organizations can do to reduce the risk of sexual harassment among their employees while working from home. Alteristic has a version of Green Dot, a widely-used bystander intervention program, tailored specifically to workplaces and each of their unique environments.

The pervasiveness of online sexual harassment is cause for concern by itself, and we often see that online behaviors  can mirror in-person behavior, and on- and offline social norms have a deep influence over the entire spectrum of online and offline behaviors. As part of their resources for Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), the National Sexual Violence Resource Center published a blog by Molly Kurnit at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the relationship between social norms, online spaces, and preventing many types of sexual violence.

Let’s Connect: Questions and Conversations Around Preventing Sexual Harassment in Virtual, At-Home Workspaces and Educational Settings. Tuesday April 27th, 11 AM PT | 2 PM ETWhat questions do you have?

Join PreventConnect on an upcoming web conference as guests from Futures Without Violence, EVERFI, and the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault explore questions and conversation about preventing sexual harassment in virtual, at-home work and educational environments. Register for this web conference here.

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