Why women stay silent about sex-based harassment

16 July 2018

By Dulini Fernando and Ajnesh Prasad

Sex-based harassment is pervasive in the workplace. Going beyond sexual harassment, sex-based harassment is behaviour that derogates, demeans, or otherwise humiliates someone on the basis of their sex. It is disproportionately experienced by women.

One study of women in military and law found that nine out of 10 had experienced gender-based harassment at some point in their career.

One reason why this harassment is so common is most victims stay silent about their experience. Studies suggest that victims stay silent because they fear consequences at work or they feel that nothing will happen as a result of speaking up. What has been studied less though is how this silencing occurs.

We set out to learn how female victims are silenced – who influences them and what exactly happens when they try to speak up. We interviewed 31 early and mid-career academics employed in business schools at nine research-intensive universities in the UK.

We asked women whether they, or others they knew, had experienced insulting, hostile, and degrading attitudes that made them feel bullied or excluded due to their gender. We encouraged them to describe events as vividly as possible and to reflect on how they and others they knew felt at each moment.

Our interviewees described a plethora of incidents that either they or others they knew had experienced, including sexist remarks, harassment during pregnancy and after giving birth, gender-based bullying, and sexually motivated advances.

We asked whether or not they stayed silent about their experiences. Contrary to what we expected, all of our interviewees said they shared their experiences with line managers, HR personnel, and professional colleagues to make sense of and to seek redress for what happened. Then they described how they were ultimately persuaded to move on and stop raising the issue.

We noted three key barriers that victims encountered when they started to speak about experiences of sex-based harassment. First, they were told they had to prove that their experience was uncommon and significant; second, they were expected to “trust the system” to resolve their issues; and third, they faced severe consequences, such as a damaged reputation, when they challenged the system.

Victims were often told that their experiences didn’t amount to harassment - that they were common and insignificant - and if they wanted to file a formal complaint, they’d need to show otherwise. One assistant professor we talked to, Alaina, explained how her line manager responded to her complaint about a senior colleague’s unwanted advances.

She said: "He was super nice in the beginning but then he always wanted to do work in the evening over a drink. I was fine with this but he kept complimenting me about the way I looked which made me quite uncomfortable.

"People were looking at us as if we were a couple. He was not bothered by it - it was good for his ego. A young woman on the side. My head of department was the only person I trusted, so I told him.

"He listened very carefully and he laughed it off saying that these kinds of things happen all the time. I shouldn’t take it so seriously. After all, this person has not forced himself on to me. And I agreed to go to all the places he invited me to. And so on. I ended up feeling embarrassed... He is the head of department, he should know what he is talking about I guess. I don’t know what to do."

Why sex-based harassment is ignored by managers and HR

By suggesting that her experience wasn’t serious, Alaina’s manager positioned her as an individual who had misinterpreted her circumstances. He also hinted that she may have “encouraged” her perpetrator because she had agreed to meet him in various places, making her feel partially responsible for her fate and invalidating the importance of her claim.

As a result, Alaina felt deeply embarrassed. While she did not completely buy her manager's verdict, his seniority in the organisation somewhat legitimised his opinion – she felt that she had no case to challenge the system. Alaina reluctantly chose to stay silent.

When women complained to HR, they were often urged to be patient and allow the issue to be quietly resolved. Senior researcher Neev explained to us what happened when she complained about a senior colleague who harassed her.

"I wasn’t included in many things – there were several areas of work that I was stronger than all of my group members but I wasn’t ask to be involved," she said. 

"It was clearly a boys club. I felt that I was treated differently to everyone else in our group and there was aggression too when I tried to complain about things. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I went to HR. They told me to calm down and said that they will look into things.

"They came back to me almost immediately and said that people speak very highly about this person. But then they were sympathetic about how I felt, they had talked to this manager and they were very willing to help me to better integrate into my team. And that was it. In their view my problem was solved, and they hinted that I should not talk about these things to anyone because these are very confidential issues.

"They made me feel like an overly dramatic person and they then offered to help me deal with my issues. That manager is now nice to me – but it is patronising, it does not change what he did. I guess they would have to talk with him. I think I deserve some justice for what I went through, but after my experience with HR, I am confused.

"I feel that I have a point which has not been recognised, but they seem to think it has been solved. I feel really low and I don’t talk to anyone in the organisation much unless I really have to."

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The HR officers attempted to “solve” Neev’s issue by asking her perpetrator to be nice to her. As far as they were concerned, Neev’s issue was now solved, she was offered support. But Neev felt extremely patronized and embarrassed for being seen as a ‘melodramatic’ individual. She believed that she still wasn’t being treated fairly, and HR’s interest in archiving her complaint left her confused.

The women we talked to were also advised by well-meaning colleagues to not voice their discontent, because of career repercussions and social isolation that might ensue. Abbey told us how many people cautioned her against complaining about a senior colleague who harassed her.

Abbey said: "He made my life miserable during maternity leave, hinting that I strategically chose to have children during the grant. But my team members were like ‘even if you leave the organisation, getting the wrong person on your bad side can effectively ruin your career, especially if it’s someone in your area. So just keep quiet. You don’t want to be known as a parasite’. Of course I don’t want to be known as a parasite. So I am scared to open my mouth to be honest, although I really want to."

Abbey’s maternity leave was not respected, but her close colleagues insisted that she should not raise the issue any further because bringing it up would position her as a "troublemaker" and negatively affect her career. This instilled a sense of fear that led Abbey to stay silent.

Based on our findings, we argue that sex-based harassment isn’t just a result of one individual’s actions; it’s accomplished by the complicity of various third party actors. Each of these cases above shows how managers, HR, and ordinary colleagues can be complicit in silencing people who experience harassment, encouraging them to trust the system, and urging them to keep these experiences to themselves.

This complicity not only provided a safe haven for perpetrators to operate, as they were spared from punishment, but it also made victims feel confused, unsupported, and, ultimately, compelled to acquiescence. As victims felt demoralised, they disengaged from work and from the social fabric of the workplace, behaviour that is known to hurt productivity, organisational commitment and profit.

We offer four recommendations for organisations and employees: 

  1. It is important to legitimise complaints about sex-based harassment. Managers should proactively let people know that they can complain, and companies should introduce policies that protect employees who speak up.
  2. It is not only important to have channels for people to report harassment, it is also necessary to have policy that clearly defines what constitutes sex-based harassment, outlines the procedure for dealing with reported cases, and establishes mechanisms to support people through the grievance process and afterwards.
  3. It is crucial to ensure that victims feel heard, their concerns validated, and their complaints taken seriously. They should be ensured action will be taken to hold culprits accountable and to prevent such cases from happening again. If people believe that injustice is “covered up” by the organisation, this can negatively affect their commitment and motivation.
  4. Employees should reflect on how they respond to colleagues’ concerns. Their actions have repercussions. By encouraging individuals to remain silent, they contribute to creating a culture of harassment.

See the original article plublisher at Harvard Business Review.

The names used in this article are not the women's real names.

Dulini Fernando is Associate Professor of Organisation and Human Resource Management and teaches Leading and Managing Change on the MSc Management. She also lectures on Business Studies and Foundations of Organisational Behaviour on the Undergraduate programme.

Ajnesh Prasad is Canada Research Chair at Royal Roads University.

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