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Why do women (and men) formally report workplace sexual harassment at such low rates? This blog post notes some of the barriers to reporting, and some of the reasons why you should do it if you’re a victim of sexual misconduct. Regardless of the reason, it takes courage to stand up for your rights.
The percentage of women (and men) who report their experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace are dismal: as low as 6-13% file a formal complaint. Researchers also assert that women who are ethnic minorities are even less likely to report because of the disempowering effect of acknowledging such discrimination and discomfort with portraying their community in any bad light. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) estimates the number of women who experience sexual misconduct in the workplace is around 75% and even maybe as high as a staggering 90%. What gives?
The fear of career damage, humiliation, disbelief, carrying a stigma of “troublemaker” amongst colleagues, or even getting fired, can be crippling. A 2003 study cited by the EEOC found that as many as 75% of harassment victims who speak out face some sort of retaliation. And these are not the only barriers to reporting. Our masculine and still male-dominated work culture may cause women to downplay inappropriate behavior or even erroneously think they are to blame. Despite workplace trainings and efforts to educate workers on what behaviors constitute harassment, there is still ambiguity about what is actionable. Accordingly, many believe that even if they do report, nothing will be or can be done to stop the harassment.
Additionally, many workplace policies require immediate reporting of sexual harassment, but as Gretchen Carlson put it, “courage is not an overnight experience.” Women may think (or hope) that they will not be victims of sexual misconduct, so if it happens, it takes time to process the experience. This may be why one of the biggest determining factors in whether a woman reports may be her sense of her support network and whether she feels that a negative stigma associated with reporting may be carried into her personal life.
In the long run, tolerating illegal harassment can lead to reduced productivity, lower job satisfaction, and adverse effects on mental and physical health, among other things. Alternatively, the courageous act of reporting can change your workplace culture, provide the opportunity to start healing, put an end to the misconduct, and send a clear message to the harasser(s) and potential harassers that such behavior is NOT okay.
If you have any doubts about the legality of what happened to you at work, document everything that is happening, go to your HR department, talk to trusted coworkers, or even seek advice from an attorney like the ones at the California Civil Rights Law Group. These are all acts of bravery. Reporting sexual misconduct could also be an act of leadership: as we have seen, when one accuser comes out, more often follow. You might not be the only victim. And if you don’t report it, you probably won’t be the last. (Our law firm has convenient offices in both Oakland and San Anselmo, California – plus you can speak with a sexual harassment attorney via a confidential telephone appointment).