After three decades of unfolding high-profile cases of sexual harassment in the workplace — from Clarence Thomas to Bill Cosby to the recently accused Roger Ailes — one might think that by this point in history, women would feel empowered to stand up and begin reporting their experiences of sexual harassment at work. As was the case in accusations against both Cosby and Ailes, when one woman came forward, several more found the bravery and voices to follow. Powerful abusers are rarely single-incident abusers, after all.
And yet, few women feel safe stepping out against colleagues or bosses. New data from an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force, which looked at workplace harassment over the course of a year, shows that despite the high profiles of these cases, incidents of harassment at the workplace still largely go unreported. In fact, the high-profile cases — where Anita Hill was not believed and Ailes was given a $40 million payout — might be having the opposite effect on women’s desires to come forward.
The task force found that one of the primary reasons victims of sexual harassment don’t come forward is that “they fear disbelief of their claim, inaction on their claim, blame, or social or professional retaliation.” The fear of professional retaliation can be a strong one, especially in the time of HR departments googling a candidate’s name before a job interview. Should theses cases of sexual harassment escalate into lawsuits, employees feel that the burden of having their names attached to “tattletale” behavior could position them as unlikely or undesirable hires at other jobs. There is also fear that because of uncertain procedures or protections in place, accusing powerful bosses or colleagues of harassment can put a victim’s job in jeopardy.
Women are more likely to “take action” by avoiding their harasser, denying or downplaying the abuse, or altogether trying to ignore or endure the harassment as it continues to happen. While the hope is the tide would be turned toward enabling the harassed to come forward, especially after public cases such as Cosby and Ailes, few women feel safe stepping out against colleagues or bosses. Many women say they feared losing jobs that they desperately needed if they said anything about harassment, and so they stayed at work, despite Donald Trump’s insistence that sexual-harassment victims should swiftly quit.
So what needs to change for more women to feel comfortable coming forward about sexual harassment? Research has found that anti-harassment training doesn’t always work on men, as it reinforces dated gender stereotypes that women are “emotional and duplicitous in the way that they both want sexual attention, but don’t want sexual harassment,” Justine Tinkler, a co-author of the anti-harassment training study found. And for many years, anti-harassment training at the workplace has been driven by a mandate to prevent lawsuits. This anti-litigation stance, the EEOC task force points out, works in direct counter to the real action that needs to be taken. When a company’s focus is only on preventing lawsuits, this puts a Band-Aid on a gaping wound instead of investigating the root of the problem.
The report claims that “Even effective training cannot occur in a vacuum — it must be part of a holistic culture of non-harassment that starts at the top.” So the key is creating a zero-tolerance environment for sexual harassment, which includes upper management, middle management, and general workplace culture. When leaders of companies take incidents of harassment seriously, and vow not to be perpetrators of harassment themselves, the entire workplace can begin to feel like more of a safe place for women and others to voice incidents of harassment as they come up. And it’s important to remember that no workplace is the same. As the EEOC notes, “training is most effective when tailored to the specific workforce and workplace, and to different cohorts of employees.”
It may be a long time before women feel safe enough to come forward about their own harassment, but while we continue to gather momentum, going backward would be the worst possible outcome. As the EEOC report details it, the fix can begin simply enough, if it’s to begin anywhere: “Accountability systems must ensure that those who engage in harassment are held responsible in a meaningful, appropriate, and proportional manner,” the report says, “and that those whose job it is to prevent or respond to harassment should be rewarded for doing that job well (or penalized for failing to do so).”