Why Women Tend to Let Sexual Harassment Pass

Everyday Health Jessica Firger
November 7, 2012

Jan Kerr was 18 when she entered the legal profession. While the job was intellectually rigorous, personnel relations were challenging: Her boss never hesitated to offer feedback on her looks, she says. ‘What are those lumps on your chest?'” she recalls him saying. Kerr consistently ignored his lewd comments, never reporting him or speaking up for herself.

“That was him just being smart at the time with his other work colleagues,” says the now 52-year-old of the repeated  harassment  that occurred more than three decades ago.

Kerr’s reaction is not uncommon, and a recent study published in the journal  Organization Science  says women are troubled by the lack of reporting. Peers who were aware of a colleague being harassed    but who said they had not been harassed themselves    believed they’d be more confrontational if placed in the same scenario. However, women who had experienced sexual harassment expressed more understanding and less  judgment of victims who didn’t report incidents.

“Why do we condemn people who don’t stand up?” asks Ann Tenbrunsel, coauthor of the paper and professor of business ethics at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.  “We all think we’d be more aggressive in the same situation, and we condemn people who are not.”

The legal definition of sexual harassment is unwelcome  verbal, visual, or physical  conduct of a sexual nature  that is  severe or pervasive  and  affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment, ” according to Equal Rights Advocates,  a nonprofit legal organization dedicated to protecting and expanding economic and educational access and opportunities for women and girls.

In a survey of 9,000 clerical and professional women, 92 percent of respondents experienced overt physical harassment, sexual remarks, and leering, with the majority regarding this behavior as a serious problem at work, according to the law firm of Maya Risman in New York. Nearly half said they or someone they knew had quit or been fired because of  sexual harassment, and 75 percent said they believed that if they complained to a supervisor, nothing would be done.

Workers are protected from sexual harassment largely under the federal Employment Discrimination Law and Civil Rights Law. To help  keep inappropriate behavior out of the workplace, most  companies also have a strict sexual harassment policy and many even offer training to their employees. However,  sexual harassment remains a persistent challenge for many women in the workplace.

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Jennifer Marsh, vice president of victim services at the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, says it’s important take note of the many reasons why women choose not to report sexual harassment in the workplace. “A victim may minimize what’s happening to them, they may have very legitimate concerns about losing their job, perhaps they feel what’s the use of reporting it because ever other woman here is having the same experience.” she says.

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Playing the Blame Game

Tenbrunsel  and her team conducted a series of five studies to examine these behaviors, taking their cue from  a study done more than a decade ago,  in which women were told to  imagine a situation where a male interviewer asked questions of a sexual nature. In this particular study, women were asked to determine if they’d  confront the harasser,  refuse to answer his questions, leave the interview, or report the incident. Those researchers found none of the  women who experienced  this behavior took actions  against the harasser.

“When we’re predicting how we’re going to behave you could argue that we’re thinking in the abstract,” suggests Tenbrunsel.
Delyanne Barros,  co-chair of the sexual harassment practice group and  an associate at Outten & Golden, a law firm in New York City, says she isn’t surprised by the findings of these studies.

“There’s some sort of gender war where women will blame other women. This is the type of situation where women should come together,” she says.  “Nobody wants to admit to themselves that they wouldn’t stand up to sexual harassment. There’s this mentality of blaming the victim, that there was something she did to ask for it.”