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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Remote Work Has Seemingly Emboldened Workplace Harassers

Abusers and bigots are more comfortable while hiding behind a laptop screen

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Photo: Olivier DOULIERY / AFP (Getty Images)

Although there are plenty of advantages to the remote working setup that has become the norm for some industries during the coronavirus pandemic, there’s one aspect of workplace culture that has remained frustratingly persistent: workplace harassment. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been a handful of high-profile incidents of harassment—several of which have involved men exposing their genitals while on video calls with their colleagues—but it’s likely more people are also experiencing more common harassment, such as racist microaggressions and other inappropriate or unwelcome comments.

In some ways, the often informal and unsupervised channels through which remote work takes place can actually enable increased harassment—because of both the lack of oversight and witnesses to employee interactions and the blurring of barriers between professional and personal spaces. “We often hide for a reason, and for many of us, the pandemic made that covering impossible,” explained diversity, equity, and inclusion expert Jennifer Brown to the New York Times. “You may not be able to avoid a same-sex partner walking in the background of your screen, a parent’s accent, a religious decoration on the wall, poor internet signal or manifestations of anxiety.”

In a report from tech-focused nonprofit Project Include, 25% of survey respondents said they experienced an increase in gender-based harassment during the pandemic, and 10% experienced an increase in race and ethnicity-based harassment. Of the respondents who were 50 years or older, 23% reported experiencing increased age-based harassment while working remotely during the pandemic. 52% of women who responded to another survey reported experiencing some form of harassment or microaggression in the workplace over the past year, with women of color and LGBTQ+ women experiencing these incidents at significantly higher rates than their peers.

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“The big learning we had is people will harass people and be hostile to people no matter what the environmentthey will find a way,” Project Include chief executive Ellen Pao told Reset Work. “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.”