Why Does Workplace Sexual Harassment Go Unreported?

Robin Schwartz

Why Does Workplace Sexual Harassment Go Unreported?

There are many stories of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the workplace. To some, it comes as no surprise, but others who find themselves in this situation might be asking “why me?”. Why have men in powerful positions been able to conduct themselves in such a way for five, ten or even 30 years?

Workplace sexual harassment is as real today as it ever was. Understanding the serious problem goes hand in hand with trying to understand why many women (and even some men) don’t report sexual harassment when they encounter it in the workplace.

They Don’t Know They’re Being Harassed

Women know when behavior makes them uncomfortable. When do certain behaviors cross the line and become sexual harassment? That is a question many women ask themselves which can result in failing to realize the harassment is already occurring.

For years, the behaviors of certain men would be dismissed because “he’s of a different generation” or because “boys will be boys”. There is a cultural acceptance that inappropriate or questionable behavior can be expected in some men, specifically those in male dominated industries.

Women in the workplace often stop to consider if this is how man speaks to all his colleagues, whether male or female and whether he is just trying to be funny or if he is purposely making advances towards a colleague.

Many women don’t want to be viewed as someone who jumped to conclusions and cried wolf when there was nothing actually going on.

They Fear Career Consequences

The consequences of reporting sexual harassment can be immediate and long lasting. Many women have a valid fear that reporting a colleague for harassment (especially a supervisor) can result in the abrupt loss of their job.

The idea of being “outed” within their organization as someone who stepped forward comes with additional concerns about reputation and future career advances.

Worst of all, women fear that nothing would be done to remedy the situation should they step forward, leaving them to have to continue working with a (now) angry colleague.

Women also have a valid fear of the report following them outside the organization. There is very little stopping an employer from providing a negative job reference and informing the next organization of the accusations.

The thought that this one incident could follow a women for her entire career is enough to make many suffer in silence.

They Don’t Know Who To Turn To

Larger companies and organizations tend to have dedicated HR staff and sometimes even staff assistance programs.

Smaller businesses tend to have less staff dedicated to confidential and sensitive issues like sexual harassment. Knowing who to turn to for help can be a huge obstacle for many women when it comes to reporting cases.

If a women feels she’s being sexually harassed by her immediate supervisor, that creates an even larger issue. If she can’t go to him for help, who does she turn to next? HR (if a representative is available) or his boss?

Many women stop short of seeking out reporting procedures due to the sheer difficulty in doing so. They may feel as if there is no one at the organization they can turn to for confidential help and reporting.

They Feel Threatened

Women not only fear their jobs and careers being threatened, but in some cases, they fear their actual lives. Workplace sexual harassers may be in a unique position of power over those they harass.

Aggressive behaviors towards women may force victims to stay silent and not report their harassers.

Being told things like “I’ll kill you if you tell anyone” or “I know where you live” are enough for many women to deal with the abuse in the name of self-preservation.

They Feel Unheard

Unfortunately, many women feel as if reports of sexual harassment are commonly dismissed. There is a serious concern that a woman will not be believed if she speaks up against someone. This is particularly true in the cases of powerful men in the community or men who carry positive reputations around with them.

People simply cannot believe they would engage in such behavior. Single accusers face a backlash of criticism and disbelief. Women may feel more inclined to speak up if others plan to do the same. Strength in numbers may allow accusations to be better heard.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious concern for many women.

Whatever their reason(s) is, women often feel as if they are faced with obstacles and complications should they decide to report harassing behavior.

These hurdles often appear so massive that women are deterred from seeking help. It is important that the current shift in our culture continues so that all people feel safe and included in their workplace without fear of harassment or reprisal.

Taking a stand now may prevent others from enduring workplace harassment in the future.

About The Author

Robin Schwartz

Robin Schwartz has nearly a decade of experience providing HR expertise to employees and management in higher education. Her broad experience includes benefits, compensation, performance management, employee relations, payroll, talent acquisition and management. She received her masters degree from American Military University and maintains a PHR certification.

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