Lazard, L., Capdevila, R. and Buchanan, K. (2008) Politicising the personal? The construction of the public/private dichotomy in accounts of sexual harassment. Paper presented to: British Psychological Society Psychology of Women Section (POWS) 21st Anniversary Conference, Windsor, 16-18 July 2008.
This paper explores the ways in which the public/private dichotomy is interwoven in accounts of workplace sexual harassment. The public/private dichotomy has been variously deployed in representations of working life to maintain gendered power relations in the workplace. Wage labour has traditionally been constructed as a masculinised preserve which is reflected in characterisations of idealised professional relations as rational and formalised. The formalisation of work relationships has been seen to provide a buffer against workplace sexual harassment. This is because sexualised interaction has been located within the ‘private’ sphere and as such is rendered unacceptable within ‘public’ working life. However, bureaucratic ideals of impersonal working relationships have been superseded by conceptualisations of the worker as an individual with social and personal needs. Within this conceptualisation of the worker, liberal humanist discourses of valuing the individual become interwoven with conceptions of productive labour. This paper seeks to unpack how representations of increased personalisation of the workplace produce particular tensions in relation to sexual harassment. This exploration is part of a wider PhD project in which 18 semi-structured interviews were conducted on the broad topic of unwanted sexual attention. Foucauldian discourse analysis of the data highlighted how constructions of workplace sexual harassment were constituted through a range of discourses around the public/private distinction which worked to position such behaviour as a personal relation. Representations of emotional labour and friendship in employment served to construct sexual harassment on the job as less clear-cut and difficult to regulate by formal means. Implications that these constructions have for challenging sexual harassment will be discussed