Corporate Cougars

When 22-year-old Brian* started temping as the secretary for a prestigious New York City real estate firm, he expected a professional environment where he could learn about a booming industry. What he got instead was a different type of education -- one that stressed him out and that forever changed his concept of sexual harassment in the workplace.

"I always thought this kind of stuff only happened to women with male bosses," Brian complained, years later. "But being the only guy in the office, I was the target of a lot of rude comments about my appearance -- both good and bad -- and the fact that I was a male secretary was joked about incessantly."

After being subjected to a lengthy bosses' lecture on how he was 'too cute' to wear the boring clothes he wore and how he should 'spruce up' to 'give the girls some eye candy,' Brian quit. However, he didn't mention the offenses to the higher-ups at the company or at his temping agency. "I wanted to tell someone, but every time I tried to explain I just felt so stupid, so emasculated. I felt better just sweeping it all underneath the rug."

Test Yourself: Can you tell if it's sexual harassment?

Studies show that for the first time in four years, harassment in the workplace from both male and female bosses and co-workers is on the rise.

Tragically, stories like Brian's are not uncommon (the vast majority of all sexual harassment complaints go unreported) but as more and more men realize that they are not the only ones dealing with an unprofessional work environment, men are starting to briskly fight against unfair treatment from female superiors. In 2007, a record number of cases -- nearly 16 percent -- were filed by men, a number that has practically doubled in a mere decade. And these are just the documented incidents.

A recent telephone survey found that up to 20% of men have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, but a whopping 62% took no action. This hesitation to complain stems from a variety of reasons, with the fear of losing one's job being just one of them. Concepts of masculinity prevent many male workers from reaching out for help against a harasser, as it can be perceived as emasculating to admit that belittling from a female affects them.

As attention from women is coveted amongst heterosexual men, male harassment victims might be afraid to admit to receiving too much or the wrong type of attention because this acknowledgment might call the victim's sexuality into question.

We've all snickered at how Steve Carrell's regional manager character on The Office demeans Ryan the temp in a pseudo-sexual way, but the rising levels of harassment in the real world is no laughing matter. While many male harassment complaints are against other men, as more women take on executive and leadership roles that were previously held solely by men, it is understandable that complaints against these 'corporate cougars' (women in powerful professional positions) might potentially rise.

But is it acceptable that the numbers have risen by so much, and in this short amount of time? It's safe to say that in today's workplace, employees of all genders need to keep their guard up about protecting their personal space and respect. Everyone has the right to feel comfortable and to be treated professionally on their job. Whether you're male or female, take this quiz to test your sexual harassment awareness and to learn more about what to do if sexual harassment happens to you. Remember, you are not alone!

*Name has been changed to protect the innocent.

Test Yourself: Can you tell if it's sexual harassment?

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