Workplace Harassment in the Age of Remote Work

According to a Deloitte survey, Women at Work: A Global Outlook, 52 percent of women have experienced some form of harassment or microaggression in the past year, ranging from the belief that their judgment is being questioned because they are women to disparaging remarks about their physical appearance, communication style, race, sexual orientation or caregiving status. Women of color and L.G.B.T.Q. women were significantly more likely to experience these noninclusive behaviors.

Another report from Project Include, a nonprofit organization that aims to accelerate diversity and inclusion in tech, found that 25 percent of respondents experienced an increase in gender-based harassment during the pandemic, about 10 percent experienced an increase in race- and ethnicity-based hostility, and 23 percent of respondents who were 50 years and older experienced increased age-based harassment or hostility.

“The big learning we had is people will harass people and be hostile to people no matter what the environment — they will find a way,” Ellen Pao, chief executive of Project Include, told Reset Work, a new business publication distributed through email.

“For them, it was easier to harass remotely, because there was so much privacy in those interactions. I don’t have a colleague next to me while I’m yelling at somebody, so nobody is seeing me or overhearing me being a harasser. It made it easier in many ways, because they could text or they could chat. All of a sudden, these one-on-one communications became normal, and you could invade somebody’s privacy in their own home in a way that you couldn’t do at the office.”

While obscene instances such as Zoom masturbation become headlines, more common examples of incivility and harassment can include unwelcome comments about an employee’s appearance, demeanor, physical surroundings, productivity or political beliefs.

Taken in isolation, these remarks can seem benign, and they sometimes are. Noting that a colleague is wearing pajamas during a meeting is “not necessarily an invitation to sex,” said Vicki Schultz, a professor of law and social sciences at Yale Law School. “This is a mischaracterization of what sexual harassment actually is and misses its meaning as behavior that undermines equality,” she said, noting how common it is for businesses and public figures alike to exploit the general public’s misunderstanding of sexual harassment.

These circumstances do not necessarily engender sexual harassment, but they call attention to gender in a way that women have worked for years to undo, Ms. Schultz said. “It’s the eye rolling, snide commentary — the kinds of things women experience when they work in low numbers,” she said.