Although researchers and the media often focus on explicit workplace sexual harassment, such as sexual coercion, many unwanted sexual interactions can be much more ambiguous. Ambiguously sexual interactions have unclear meaning: they could have sexual intent, but they could also be an expression of friendliness or a misguided compliment. This study examined how workers in the tech industry deal with ambiguously sexual interactions. The author found that when interviewees anticipated that ambiguously sexual interactions would evolve into sexual harassment, they engaged in “trajectory guarding”: they monitored and changed their behaviours to avoid harassment from occurring, such as by cutting off contact with the colleague in question or by avoiding staying late at work. The author found that because women had a higher concern of being sexually harassed, women disproportionately engaged in trajectory guarding. Not only does trajectory guarding require time and effort—it can also be detrimental to their careers.
Many people understand workplace sexual harassment as involving outright or explicit interactions, such as coercing an employee into sex or making unwelcome sexual advances. However, unwanted sexual interactions in the workplace may often be conveyed in ambiguous ways rather than explicitly. One example is flirtation, which indicates the possibility of a sexual interaction through a behaviour that could also be nonsexual (e.g., making eye contact or leaning in).
When people are engaged in ambiguous interactions, they aim to understand the trajectory of these interactions – that is, what will happen with this relationship in the longer term. Unwanted, ambiguously sexual interactions in the workplace have an uncertain trajectory, as people do not know whether these interactions will eventually lead to sexual harassment or not.
Through 84 semi-structured interviews with tech workers, this study examined how workers deal with ambiguously sexual interactions and the resulting consequences. The researcher conducted interviews with 52 women, 29 men, and 3 non-binary people who worked in the tech industry in the San Francisco Bay Area. Interviewees were recruited through LinkedIn, tech-related listservs, the author’s social networks, and snowball sampling.
Types of ambiguously sexual interactions
A majority of the women interviewees (32 of 52) and some of the men (10 of 29) said that they had experienced ambiguously sexual interactions in professional settings. These interactions took different forms. The first form was showing possible sexual or romantic interest, e.g., a female marketing manager recalled how an older male co-worker asked her for favours and connected with her on her Instagram. The second form was expressing interest in the interviewee’s personal or romantic life, e.g., a female software engineer talked about how a male engineering professor asked her intrusive questions about her boyfriend. The third form was being objectified, e.g., a female user-experience designer recalled being called pretty by a colleague in a meeting.
These are ambiguous interactions because it is questionable whether they were intended to be sexual as opposed to friendly, or a misguided compliment. There was also little agreement among interviewees about which ambiguously sexual interactions were inappropriate; in fact, some expressed that they did not mind such interactions. Further, some of these interactions escalated into harassment, while others were misunderstandings that never developed further. This ambiguity meant it was difficult for interviewees to know what the best action to take was when faced with such a situation.
Women interviewees showed more concern about these ambiguously sexual interactions than men, the latter of whom felt that they could simply “walk away” from uncomfortable behaviour. This aligns with prior research that shows that because women are more likely to experience sexual harassment in their daily lives, they come to expect it more than men. Indeed, ten women in this study, but only one man, recalled instances where ambiguously sexual interactions became explicit harassment. For instance, one woman told of how her manager’s questions about her romantic partner over time became explicitly sexual.
As such, women disproportionately described engaging in a strategy that the author deemed “trajectory guarding”, in order to avoid future harassment. That is, they monitored and adjusted their behaviours with the person who initiated the interaction. These behaviours included always being on guard; finding ways to express that they were not sexually available (e.g., by saying that they were married); and limiting further interactions, such as by declining meetings in the evenings or acting coldly.
Trajectory guarding was costly, both for the women’s wellbeing and their careers. It was firstly labour-intensive, especially mentally, to have to constantly monitor the behaviours of themselves and others. Secondly, avoiding certain colleagues and avoiding working late meant that some women came to be perceived as unfriendly and/or not dedicated to their jobs. Because coworkers and managers were not aware of the reasons behind this behaviour, they may have attributed it to a personal deficiency, such as a poor work ethic.
Ambiguously sexual interactions may contribute to gender inequality in the workplace—While it is important for workplaces to focus on preventing explicit sexual harassment, it is also important to be aware of how ambiguously sexual interactions can occur prior to harassment. Because women are disproportionately affected by sexual harassment, women more than men feel the need to act strategically to prevent harassment, such as by limiting interactions with certain colleagues. These strategies in turn may limit women’s career advancement.
Organizations can educate all employees about ambiguously sexual interactions—During harassment training sessions, organizations can include descriptions of these types of interactions to help everyone understand what they are and how they may particularly affect women.
The impact of ambiguously sexual interactions can be minimized if people who initiate them respond to cues that sexual attention is unwanted—Sometimes ambiguously sexual interactions do not have any sexual intent, and if those who initiate these interactions immediately cease them when they sense they are unwanted, women will not have to use strategies to avoid future mistreatment. The interaction can instead become a fleeting moment that does not require further attention.
Trajectory guarding may be a strategy that other marginalized groups use to navigate professional settings—Different marginalized groups may engage in trajectory guarding to protect themselves from mistreatment. For instance, a nonbinary interviewee in this study described purposely minimizing contact with a boss who had made a snide comment about their gender non-conforming appearance. People at all levels of organizations should be aware of the possible impacts of their interactions and how they may contribute to marginalized groups having to take on labour-intensive strategies to navigate their workplaces.
Research brief prepared by: