Why Victims Don’t Report Sexual Harassment
The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) estimates that 75% of all workplace sexual harassment cases go unreported. The #MeToo movement taught us that inappropriate behavior runs rampant everywhere and there have been a myriad of reasons why victims didn’t come forward.
In a study reported on in Harvard Business Review, 31 women in predominantly masculine industries showed that sexual harassment continues to be a problem for women. The study, with an initial interesting focus on attractiveness, actually ended up finding that 75% of the women interviewed had been sexually harassed at work – few had reported it for themselves or when they had witnessed it happening to someone else. The women cited three main reasons on why they failed to report the harassment.
“Fear of retaliation – either by the harasser or the organization. Research has found that sexual harassment can be trivialized by organizations or result in hostility and retaliation against the victim.
The bystander effect – which says that we are less likely to help a victim when others are also present. The bystander effect occurs for two reasons: diffusion of responsibility (if others are present, someone feels that other observers are responsible for intervening) and social influence (bystanders observe others’ behavior to determine the correct behavior; so if no one is intervening then that seems to be the correct behavior, as people abide by the status quo).
Masculine culture – In very masculine work cultures, some men use the subjugation of women as a way to relate to other men and prove their masculinity, while reinforcing women’s lower status. At the same time, women who want to be part of the high-status group may play along with sexual harassment because they do not want to be further alienated from the high-status group (men). Women may even start to adopt the same behaviors as men to fit in.”1
While the #MeToo movement has sparked many discussions about harassment in the workplace, it wasn’t the first time this conversation has come up. One prominent example is the website and survey called “Elephant in the Valley” where several women working in Silicon Valley sent out an anonymous survey to more than 200 women. According to the survey, 60% of the women had experienced sexual harassment at work.
From the website:
“The inspiration for this survey came out of the incredible conversation from the Ellen Pao & KPCB trial. What we realized is that while many women shared similar workplace stories, most men were simply shocked and unaware of the issues facing women in the workplace. In an effort to correct the massive information disparity, we decided to get the data and the stories.”
The study started with 200+ women in Silicon Valley with at least 10 years of experience. While all the respondents were women, they were from diverse backgrounds and held positions of power and influence with many reporting they were CXOs or founders. Others were from large tech companies in the Valley like Apple and Google. All shared a common trait that they had experienced harassment in their daily work. Many of the women responding to the survey shared their personal stories of what had happened to them. While some reported the harassment, many did not.
One woman shared,
“After a colleague made a (VERY unwanted) advance, I did not complain to anyone but I ensured that I never was alone with him outside an office setting. Not complaining was a mistake. The colleague later criticized me in a review as ‘not putting in enough hours.’ If I’d filed a complaint, his spiteful slap back at me would have been put in context. But I wouldn’t have known whom to complain to or how.”
Another woman talked about the difficulty of knowing whether she should report or how to make it work. She said,
“He worked in HR so I would have had to go to the head of HR which felt career limiting. That said, after I left I know he continued to harass other women, which makes me wish I had filed a complaint. I’m not proud of how I handled it but I was afraid and didn’t want to invest any more time or emotional energy. It was behind closed doors, no one else was there, so I knew it would be a he said/she said.”
Another woman from the survey said she would have reported a harassment incident, but her company didn’t have HR. She said she didn’t know who she could talk to. One final story illustrates another reason women don’t report, because they didn’t think it was a big deal.
“I didn’t file because it seemed like an innocuous statement between long-time friendly colleagues at the time,” she said. “However, the repercussions of my rejecting my superior caused him to be very negative towards me and make my work life very difficult.”
In a study published by the University of Michigan on sexual harassment at work, the authors looked at sexual harassment reporting over the years. Much of the research in this study supports the results of the survey from Elephant in the Valley. One thing the study authors found was that many employers saw reporting as the solution to sexual harassment. They said, “Of all potential responses to sexual harassment, intra-organizational reporting has received most research attention, reflecting increasing emphases by American employers and courts on organizational reporting as the key mechanism for eliminating workplacesexual harassment.”2 However, the authors found that sometimes reporting sexual harassment at work can actually make the problem worse for the victim.
They said this was because,
“in some workplaces, the only procedures available for reporting sexual harassment are formal, requiring victims to lodge written, signed complaints against their harassers; the organization then typically notifies the harasser of the complaint and conducts an investigation. Some companies have specialized personnel for these investigations; many do not. Organizations also differ in the standard of proof used to determine whether sexual harassment has taken place. Some rely on the civil standard of ‘preponderance of evidence’ (i.e., is it ‘more likely than not’ that harassment occurred), the standard used by the courts in Title VII cases. Other companies use the more stringent criminal standard of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ the highest level of proof required to win a case in court.”
The study went on to say that research shows victims usually only turn to making a formal complaint about the harassment when they have exhausted every other response option. These can include ignoring, avoiding, and going into denial about the harassment (like the woman in the first story above). It can also sometimes mean addressing the harasser directly, though this was one of the least common ways victims dealt with sexual harassment at work based on the research these authors studied.
“Employees’ reluctance to report experiences of sexual harassment is primarily attributed to fear – fear of blame, disbelief inaction, retaliation, humiliation, ostracism, and damage to one’s career and reputation.” This was not unwarranted fear. The authors found “two-thirds of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment then faced some form of retaliation. Others have found that sexual harassment reporting is often followed by organizational indifference or trivialization of the harassment complaint as well as hostility and reprisals against the victim.”
These responses by their companies discouraged women from reporting future harassment incidents and created a culture where women relied on reporting to friends or family rather than ending the workplace harassment by filing a formal complaint. This research supports the EEOC’s estimate that 75% of harassment events go unreported.
Since victims are not alerting their superiors of inappropriate workplace behavior, this can create an information imbalance within a company. In a survey conducted by SHRM, most executives responding said they didn’t think sexual harassment was a problem, compared to 65% of non-management employees who said their workplace had a problem with harassment.
“It appears that employees don’t feel that they have the power to bring allegations forward in a way that won’t harm them,” said Evren Esen, director of workforce analytics for the Society for Human Resources Management, which conducted the study.
For employers who don’t think they have a problem with sexual harassment in their workplace, it would still be a good idea to address the culture and reporting mechanisms to ensure that everyone agrees that the company doesn’t have a problem with sexual harassment.
The HBR article from the beginning of this paper had three suggested resolution for working toward victims feeling safe about reporting:
Train employees in bystander reporting
Develop clearer HR and reporting systems
Assess and improve your culture (surveys, supportive supervisors, work groups, etc.)
Bevoco is a powerful anti-harassment platform that helps to prevent and eliminate harassment in the workplace by giving your company a tool to help your employees become better educated, encourage open communication, and facilitate the reporting process. This innovative new platform helps you to check all three boxes above by including integrated anti-harassment training to help you educate your workforce on what constitutes unacceptable behavior.
From the University of Michigan study:
“Many victims do not want to lodge a formal complaint, set an investigation into motion, or see their harasser punished; they simply want the offensive behavior to end.”
This may be part of the reason why the EEOC recommends that the best approach to harassment in the workplace is that victims first tell the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and should be stopped. For many, this can be intimidating and difficult. Bevoco simplifies the process by helping the injured party craft a professional communication and notify the harasser through the platform. Communications within the platform are securely stored and can be used as evidence if the harassment continues. An employee can also open files as a bystander or as a witness.
Using Bevoco to help your company develop those resolutions will go a long way in creating an effective, diverse, and open workplace, allowing your company to focus on developing a culture that will prevent sexual harassment.