A spate of recent public revelations, including the spontaneous #metoo discussions on social media, is emboldening many victims of sexual harassment to speak up, but many still remain silent.
Up to 85 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace and many men as well according to a report released in 2016 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Common responses to harassment include: avoiding the harasser, downplaying the gravity of the situation or attempting to ignore or endure the behavior. The least common response? Taking formal action — either reporting their harassment internally or by filing a formal complaint. In fact, 70 percent of men or women who experienced workplace harassment “never even talked with a supervisor, manager or union representative about it,” according to the EEOC report.
The Associated Press spoke to several experts about why this sexual misconduct in the workplace is still underreported:
WHY THEY DON’T REPORT IT
Q. Sexual harassment is part of a national conversation these days, but many victims still aren’t coming forward. Why?
A. The top reason is a fear of retaliation — either by the harasser or their employer.
“While it is illegal…that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,” said Emily Martin, vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “It happens a lot.”
Often, when a victim experiences harassment they calculate the best possible outcome of making a report and it doesn’t look very attractive, Martin said. Even if they aren’t terminated, it can affect relationships in the workplace and victims worry about how they will be seen at work and their ability to do their job.
“The weighing of costs and benefits can very legitimately lead victims to conclude there is too much risk in coming forward,” she said.
Tammy Cho, co-founder of BetterBrave, a website that provides resources for sexual harassment victims, also talked about distrust in human resources. The site was launched after a female engineer at Uber publicly detailed her harassment at the company and how her complaints were ignored.
BetterBrave, which interviewed hundreds of people on the topic, also found there is underreporting because of uncertainty about what is considered sexual harassment. The EEOC report, for example, found women were less likely to say they’d been a victim of sexual misconduct when they were asked about it in general terms but as the questions became more specific, citing examples of forms of sexual harassment, the prevalence grew much higher.
And there is a preference to avoid drama, such as getting someone fired or having to go to trial.
“Survivors don’t speak up because as a society, we shame, isolate and doubt survivors when they come forward,” said Sheerine Alemzadeh, co-founder and co-director of Healing to Action, which fights gender-based violence through workforce leaders. “Our culture normalizes violence and aggression against women – when it occurs we question why the survivor put herself in that situation, instead of why a person would grope, proposition, or rape another person. Until that changes, survivors only risk further trauma by coming forward. “
There is also “bystander apathy” that BetterBrave says contributes to underreporting — as those who witness it assume someone else will report it.
Q. There have been a number of victims speaking up lately in the press and through social media campaigns like #metoo. Will this help bring more victims forward?
A. “Absolutely, I definitely think seeing women come forward empowers other women to come forward,” said Cho.
There are signs this is true: calls to the National Women’s Law Center about harassment have doubled in the past month or so and Martin said searches of the EEOC website are up.
However, Martin is more reserved in her assessment, saying it remains to be seen if this is an isolated moment in time or true turning point. Still, she believes there are benefits from the growing awareness.
“What we are seeing now is the power of women’s voices … people sharing their stories of harassment is making women feel more empowered to say ‘It happened to me too’ and that they will be believed.”
Alemzadeh also expressed some caution about this being seen as a watershed point.
Victims will come forward only if reports are “met with a strong, proactive response and clear consequences”, she said. But if this movement “devolves into minimizing reports or backlash against survivors, you can expect even greater fear in coming forward.”
Q. Is there evidence that this tide of events has changed workplace policy at all?
A. Some companies do seem interested in taking added steps now to prevent sexual harassment.
Cho said BetterBrave has spoken to many organizations looking for ways to better support their employees, including creating better workplace policies that clarify the process for reporting and resolving issues like sexual harassment.
“This is a good start, but creating stronger policies is not enough to address this problem,” she said. “Many of the companies we’ve seen blasted on the news had sexual harassment policies in place and even internal hotlines to report harassment.
“Policies are all optics until companies take the next step to properly enforce these policies and create a culture where employees not only feel safe, but are safe to speak up.”
HOW TO TAKE ACTION
Q. What are your options if you were harassed and want to take formal action?
A. Beyond confronting the harasser, you can report the situation in your workplace, file an EEOC charge or seek legal action. Report crimes, such as rape, to the police or contact a sexual assault service program for help.
If you are going to make a legal claim, Martin said it’s important to speak with HR or use whatever resources are available in the workplace first. Courts will look to see if the victim did everything they could to address harassment. And it may be in your best interest to file an EEOC charge, as you must do so in a timely manner to pursue a lawsuit in federal court.
BetterBrave has tips online, the EEOC has information on its website and you can consult with an employment attorney. Most experts advise getting basic information about what your legal rights are.
“It’s so helpful to have someone sit down with you and walk you through what your rights are and what the options are,” Martin said. “Even if you don’t pursue it, that can be very empowering.
National Women’s Law Center is launching a “Network for Gender Equity” that connects women with attorneys willing to do a free initial visit.
Q. What should you do first?
A. Cho said the first step is to document it — save that email, take screen shots or save any other pertinent information. Or simply write down all the details you can remember with as many facts possible for your own reference.
“The gut reaction is ‘Oh shoot this never happened to me,’ and to push it out of their mind or even delete evidence,” she said. But that information can help you greatly down the line.
Alemzadeh suggested telling someone you trust, who will believe you and support your decisions.
“It is incredibly important to have a support system when experiencing sexual harassment,” she said. “Navigating an employer’s HR process, law enforcement, and the courts can be overwhelming. … Make sure there is someone who can help you navigate your options and advocate for yourself. “
Q. What can be done to ease the hurdles to reporting?
A. The first step is having a workplace culture that values people equally, regardless of their gender, said Alemzadeh. Second is to have procedures that reflect the realities of trauma and sexual assault, both at the HR level and at law enforcement agencies.
She points to the EEOC requiring complaints to be filed between 6 months and 300 days from the date of the harassment. But many survivors wait for years before being ready to share their stories.
Other suggestions including focusing on the role of bystanders to speak up and addressing gaps in legal assistance. The latter is of particular importance for lower-income workers, Martin said. She said The Legal Aid Society doesn’t really do workplace law as it’s time consuming and expensive. And an absence of unions in the workplace means there is no workplace advocate for many workers to go to.
Overwhelmingly, experts say people need to be aware of their rights.
“A lot of these fears are understandable,” Cho said. “At the end of the day there are some laws that protect us. I don’t think enough people are aware of their rights yet.”