Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Critique of the Day: Beth A. Quinn, Harassment In The Workplace


Quinn, Beth A., “The Paradox of Complaining: Law, Humor, and Harassment in the Everyday Work World,” 25 Law and Social Inquiry 1151 (2000).


This is a qualitative study in which Quinn interviewed 21 women and 18 men from a sampling pool recruited from a university summer school and evening class and an organization called “Acme Electronics.” This sampling frame made for a rather limited study, as Quinn admits there was a “certain flattening of age and experiences differences,” even if there was diversity in occupations. The second set of interviews were conducted with the permission of Acme, and conducted in “a private office of Acme’s main lobby,” from a “cluster sample of employees” drawn up by the Acme Human Resources department. Not that this taints the sample, but while organizational access is important, one might question the randomness of both samples. The author would have done better to do a more in-depth case study of one organization, or some sort of comparative study with a bigger N.

Methodological concerns aside, this is an interesting article that tries to generate theories of why women remain silent in the face of sexual harassment in the workplace: they do not respond to their harassers, and they do not report the harassment. Indeed, women refused to even name their treatment as sexual harassment, and refused to admit that such behavior bothered them, until upon further questioning, they broke down in tears. This is one benefit of the research method, that the interviews fleshed out what a simple survey would not.

Quinn suggests several reasons for the silence surrounding sexual harassment:

Sexual Harassment is often brushed off as humor, which should be tolerated by women if they want to be perceived as peers (one of the guys; being treated like a man), and such humor comes in two forms, both of which have pernicious effects:
a. Chain Yanking Humor: this is close to bullying, the masculine game of “getting a rise out of” someone, a means of establishing power and displaying dominance. In such a case, rebuke would undermine the harassed person’s position and expose them as week. Silence, or laughter are the “appropriate” responses. To respond in kind is to invite escalation, and thus a “dicey game.”
b. Insider Humor: sexist and sexual jokes are a way of declaring “guys-only” space and insider status for men. It is a form of social closure against women joining the same social network, whether the men subject women to derogatory humor or refrain from it in their presence

How do women resist sexual harassment then? The tactic of resistance Quinn identifies as most common is “not taking it personal.” By conceptualizing the remarks as “just jokes” that the men “don’t really mean,” the women can remove themselves from the harmful nature of the remarks, de-contextualizing the remarks to be abstract jokes rather than personally-directed harmful remarks. This goes along with the “guys will be guys,” and “that’s just how it is” rationalization of such behavior, excusing it because of its commonality rather than being offended by its pervasiveness. “Not taking it personally” deflects the remark away from the self, and in doing so tries to thwart the harmful power of the sexist or derogatory remark as being objectively offensive, but not personally experienced as harmful. It is a way of compartmentalizing social experiences into the real and the perceived, the individual and the commonplace.

To complain would be to validate the remark as harmful and personal, and thus label oneself a victim who can’t take a joke and who takes everything too seriously and too personally. The paradox of complaining and naming is that while women want to avoid the harm of sexual harassment by merely regarding it as not harmful, complaining about sexual harassment very clearly labels it as a harm, and the person as harmed, and thus a victim and the weaker one in the power dynamic.

This results in a double bind: women are excluded from “guy-like” humor and talk because it is crude and abusive and yet also subject to it when they ask to be treated as peers or enter male-dominant workplaces. Women are expected to laugh it off, but they can’t retaliate in kind with similar insults. Women cope with it by “not taking it personal” and regarding it as not harmful and not complaining, because to complain would position them as harmed victims, a stigma.

This is a contradictory reality, one that is thrown into greater relief thanks to this interesting, qualitative study. The interviews were particularly insightful for showing how women tried to brush off sexual harassment as harmless humor, but when pressed further, showed how much it bothered them.


This is an interesting article, but would have benefitted from being either a deeper or broader study. The sampling frame was poor. But the theories generated are interesting.

It would have been better if Quinn had integrated some of the theoretical work from masculinities theory and resource-dependence theory (social networks, social closure, social capital, etc.) to explain her inclusion-exclusion theory. Also, some Critical Race Theory work on the assaultive impact of speech (Words That Wound, Matsuda et al.) would have been interesting. This article has some novel arguments, but lacks a coherent theory and suffers from its small sample. But the chain yanking thesis and the insider humor thesis are provocative explanations for why women do not regard harassing behavior as sexual harassment.