Dangers of Working in Sexually-Objectifying Workplaces

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Work environments designed to be sexually charged can take a toll on worker psychological health, particularly when sexual objectification is part of the business model. This can occur when businesses are intent on creating a fun and friendly customer experience by leveraging a sexualized climate.

What is a sexually-charged workplace?

It’s an environment where workers experience sexual objectification, which means they’re treated as a commodity or object, without regard for who they are as a person, or their dignity. It can occur in the service industry, including restaurants, bars and night clubs, but it’s important to underscore not every venue creates a sexually-objectifying environment. It’s a business decision, to intentionally create a sexualized climate that emphasizes certain kinds of dress or physical traits. Women employees, in particular, can be disadvantaged in these environments. The climate can make it difficult to safe-guard one’s well-being, maintain boundaries and avoid double bind situations.

A double bind situation is when customers and staff sense tacit approval for behaviour considered rude or offensive in other work environments, and then workers must balance earning an income and pleasing the employer. Managing customer and staff behaviours includes cracking down on anything from being grabbed, propositioned, being the subject of degrading jokes or assaulted.

And it takes a tool on staff health

Reports of anxiety and depressed mood can occur, along with feelings of degradation and confusion. There can be an increase in body shame which can lead to depression. Job dissatisfaction can occur as well. There is a heightened risk of psychological and physical injury, due to sexual harassment or sexual assault and hypervigilance, fear and chronic anger can result.

There are things companies can do to fix this

Employers should look at their underlying assumptions about profit. If there’s a bias towards thinking profits are better in sexualized environments, it’s tempting to ignore the costs of turnover. Harassment complaints or depressed workers, and workers who experience maltreatment at work tend to disengage, and legal costs rise when harassment complaints are made. Besides costs incurred promoting these environments, there are health and safety issues as well. Protecting workers from preventable injury is an employer’s responsibility, and pride can be taken in creating a work environment that is actually enjoyable for everyone—customers and staff alike. You can create a fun, friendly atmosphere – which is often the aim – without designing it to be sexualized as well.

Failing this, staff can take action of their own

Be aware of the climate and its subtle and not so subtle affects. It’s important not to internalize the environment. This means resisting seeing yourself the way the workplace may be portraying you to customers. Also, if sexual harassment is occurring, remember it’s against the law. Many employers have respectful workplace policies in place as a WorkSafeBC requirement. So, check-out your company’s policy. If a customer is harassing you, seek help from a manager and if the company doesn’t support workers when it comes to customer or staff behaviour, consider moving on or devising an exit plan. Get a break from work if it starts to skew your positive self image. If you’re asking: “What’s wrong with me, I was fine before?” it could be due, in part, to the cumulative effects of working in a sexually charged atmosphere.

If you are feeling the effects, don’t just let it go

The climate may be sending a generally negative message to customers and staff about women, and this can affect everyone. Female workers, in particular, risk absorbing this message into their self definition and it can be quite insidious. To handle negative messages, fully allow yourself to experience all your emotions. Be prepared to deal with anger, sadness or feelings of being demeaned. It’s important to acknowledge these feelings and remain vigilant about your self talk. If you notice you’re saying negative things about yourself, your body or your worth, take note.

For example, a server in a bar I knew noticed she was starting to focus on flaws. It began with picking apart her looks and moved into questioning her perception of things and her decisions. Watch out for over-using substances to supress your feelings. Talk to others and don’t go it alone. Give yourself a time frame for handling the situation to ensure your exposure to the environment is limited, and remember many workplaces promote a fun environment that doesn’t need to objectify workers to be successful.

Creating a sexually objectifying environment has an impact on everyone who works there. Underlying negativity towards women, for example, takes a toll on men as well. A server quit a job he enjoyed because he couldn’t continue working at the location after his concerns for his female colleagues went unaddressed, due to customer harassment of his colleagues. Bystanders who are aware of mistreatment of other staff can suffer guilt and feelings of powerlessness when they are unable to assist colleagues in difficult situations.

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