In the wake of the recent Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and assault scandal, the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace has become a hot button issue, with notable women like Blake Lively, Molly Ringwald, Reese Witherspoon, and many others coming out with their own stories. And “Me Too” floating around in social media statuses across the globe has been a driving force for raising awareness about toxic corporate culture.
In light of this, it’s vital that we take the time to understand what sexual harassment in the workplace is, and why so many women don’t report it (they often pass information to others with whisper networks).
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment in the workplace is described as an inappropriate sexual advance, comment, or quid pro quo. It can be of physical nature, or verbal nature. Both the victim and the one who is doing the harassing can be either male or female. It is, technically, against the law for someone to sexually harass another person in the workplace and beyond.
A 2016 EEOC study showed that one in four women will be the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace. This is a conservative statistic, considering the study saw anywhere from 25 to 85 percent of women having been the victim of workplace sexual harassment. EEOC also estimates that 75 percent of those who are victims to these hostile work environments will not report their harassment.
Reporting sexual harassment in the workplace requires identifying the harassment and, usually after speaking with the perpetrator themselves, letting a manager or human resource representative know that you're facing sexual harassment. Depending on who the sexual harasser is, you might feel more or less comfortable approaching them. (Here are some more tips for dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, depending on the perpetrator.) In fact, that's why a lot of victims don't report it at all.
With the staggering number of employees experiencing sexual assault, harassment, and sex discrimination, a question on many people’s minds might be why this conduct doesn’t get reported, especially considering the sexual harassment policy and anti-discrimination laws in the country. And while this may be baffling to many, the reasons make a whole lot of sense.
Here are just a few reasons employees don’t report sexual assault in the workplace.
There’s a general lack of knowledge, training, and education when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace. And with the prevailing stigmas surrounding women and sex, not everyone sees it as a black and white issue. Sexual harassment training, civil rights, and anti-discrimination laws have little to no effect on women once they’ve becomes victims of sex discrimination, sexual assault, or an unwanted sexual advance. So when an employee or supervisor makes a lewd comment or suggestive joke, people don’t know if it’s that big of a deal or not. And when the conduct gets more aggressive from a harasser, there is still an element of shame and confusion that clouds making a sexual harassment claim. There’s also the notion that women don’t want to be victims, and that putting up with hostile environments and sexual harassment is normal, has been normal, and will always be normal whether they take their harassment all the way up to the supreme court to make a federal law.
According to a 2016 TUC report, one in five women don’t report sexual assault or harassment behavior. Of those that make a sexual harassment claim, 80% of those said their situations didn’t change. Sixteen percent of those said going to a supervisor about the hostile behavior made their situations worse.
For many women, reporting a sexual advance or sexual harassment could mean the end of their individual employment. There’s the fear that they will be dragged through the mud at their company. They might be harassed and ridiculed by their supervisors and peers. They could lose out on future advancements and considerations. Title VII might technically protect them from immediate firing, but there’ still the possibility that these allegations will give supervisors more of a reason to fire them in the future. Many victims would rather stay silent and suffer through in the short term than face the consequences that speaking up could bring.
There's also the fear that reporting sexual assault, a sexual favor, or quid pro quo could hurt them in future endeavors. This claim could follow them as they move onto a new company in the form of blacklisting from their current company, and prevailing sex discrimination stigmas about reporting harassment. Few states have sexual harassment laws or anti-discrimination laws that are specific to sexual harassment meaning there is little to no guarantee that a slighted employer wouldn’t take their frustrations out on the employee by barring them from future employment opportunity.
As mentioned before, shame and other factors go into why a victim doesn’t report a harasser. But many times it could go even deeper than just shame or humiliation. These offenses could result in the victim developing post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental traumas that keep them from coming forward. The negative psychological effects of repeated abuse can prove to be extremely detrimental. Not only does it shame women into staying silent, but it allows other to become victims as well. It quickly becomes a cycle where the abuser gets away with the abuse and continues it onto other victims. Maybe the aggressive behavior of the harasser forces the victim to stay silent, or maybe the victim is so traumatized by the conduct that they can’t voice it out loud or repress it from the memory. Either way, lasting trauma plays a key role in why women don’t report their abuse.
This ties in with not only the psychological trauma that is triggered by sexual harassment, but widely accepted stigmas about women in the workforce. When they are being harassed, how do they know it’s harassment and not just someone’s natural behavior? Women don’t want to fit into the stereotype. They don’t want to be seen as jumping to conclusions so they ask themselves an array of questions that make them believe it wasn’t actually harassment. Was it my fault, or the fault of my harasser? Do these comments get made to everybody? Is this a hostile work environment, or are they just being funny? There’s too many questions and not enough answers and sometimes, the victim ends up blaming themselves—whether it’s due to what they are wearing, how they are acting, or because it’s “just how their colleagues are.”
But even though victims have more than their fair share of reasons for not reporting sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination to their supervisors and the authorities, it’s important that, that begins to change. No longer should women be forced to stay silent, or paid off in order to eliminate the consequences that would arise for their supervisors or companies as a whole. It is not the victim’s problem to worry about their abusers or the system that allowed for the abuse to happen in the first place. Women, and all sexual harassment victims, must take a stand and let their voices be heard so the next person who walks into that office, studio, or boardroom doesn’t suffer the same fate.
If you've been a victim of sexual harassment in your workplace, here are some resources to which you can turn for help.