Speaking Up About Sexual Misconduct at Work Is Only the Start
Despite the recent outpouring of sexual misconduct allegations, the vast majority of individuals harassed at work rarely report it, and those who do often face retaliation. So what can workplaces do to more effectively fight harassment?
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In October, after reading the New York Times’ report of allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein, a Canadian writer posed an important question on Twitter: “When did you meet YOUR Harvey Weinstein?” The writer, Anne T. Donahue, talked about an old boss who liked to massage her shoulders while she typed, and told the Washington Post that she thought “[m]aybe someone will see my story and feel less alone.” But the tweet turned into a heart-breaking thread featuring thousands of individuals who wrote about being sexually harassed at work. "We like to talk about not being alone, but there's a difference between thinking, 'I know I'm not alone in this' and seeing that you're not alone in this," she told Broadly.
Today, the question Donahue posed still resonates, though you could easily swap out “Harvey Weinstein” with “Charlie Rose,” “Matt Lauer,” and the names of other powerful men who have been accused in recent weeks of creating hostile work environments in entertainment, media, and politics through sexual misconduct. The list of major companies that have been or are currently investigating issues related to workplace misconduct, harassment or more serious allegations continues to grow, now including NBC, NPR, Vox, the New York Times, VICE Media, CBS, Pixar and DC Comics among others.
It’s important to remember, however, that the sheer number of accusations reported in the media hardly reflects just how widespread workplace sexual harassment really is. Last Tuesday, Buzzfeed News published a report that found there were more than 170,000 claims, across all industries by mostly women, filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) between fiscal years 1995 and 2016. And considering how incidents of sexual misconduct are vastly underreported, it’s likely we’ll never know just how huge a problem this is.
To try to get a better idea, though, the EEOC published a comprehensive study on the state of workplace harassment (which includes harassment on the basis of sex, race, religion, and other factors) last year. In fiscal year 2015, the report’s authors found, almost half of the allegations of harassment filed to the commission were on the basis of sex. Based on a review of a number of academic studies and surveys, anywhere from 25 percent to 85 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, based on how “sexual harassment” is defined.
As shown by what many are calling the “Harvey Weinstein effect,” or a "reckoning" for sexual misconduct, there is power in victims coming forward and putting language to their experiences—regardless of what the consequences may be for the perpetrator. But unsurprisingly, the study found that most individuals who were harassed at work never report it. One researcher cited in the study found that of those who did speak out on bad behavior, 75 percent faced some form of retaliation.
Anne Hedgepeth is the interim vice president of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women. She tells Broadly that workplaces should be doing a number of things to support those coming forward or thinking about coming forward. “That starts with workplaces having clear policies in place about not tolerating sex discrimination and sexual harassment. There [should be] a clear delineation of behavior that’s not tolerated, who to go to if you experience sexual harassment, what actions to take, the possibility of HR and what their role looks like, and also what steps will be taken if you do report sexual harassment.”
“Demystifying reporting and what will happen if you come forward can be really important,” she continues. “All workplaces should be doing that, but certainly making sure workers know their rights and know these things are in place can also make a big difference.”
But it’s not enough to simply have policies in place. The EEOC report notes how beneficial bystander intervention training could be— especially as much of the sexual harassment training instituted by companies in the past 30 years has, according to the report, not been effective at prevention, in part because it often focuses on avoiding legal liability. “We know that most coworkers are not comfortable when harassment occurs around them, even when they are not the direct victims of the harassment,” they write. “Bystander training could teach co-workers how to recognize potentially problematic behaviors; motivate and empower employees to step in and take action; teach employees skills to intervene appropriately; and give them resources to support their intervention.”
Brande Stellings, senior vice president of advisory services at Catalyst, a nonprofit working to make workplaces better for women, agrees that speaking up is important. “To borrow a line from [the MTA] subway system, if you see something, say something,” she tells Broadly. She also acknowledges that some people have mixed feelings about going to HR, and suggests turning to a trusted manager if necessary.
“I think really seeing this as a workplace issue, an issue for everyone and not just women, is key.”
It’s also really important, Stellings says, for men to be a part of these conversations—not only speaking up when they see or hear something that doesn’t feel right, but also maintaining their roles as mentors and allies for women. “I think really seeing this as a workplace issue, an issue for everyone and not just women, is key.”
Another recommendation from the EEOC report is to institute an “It’s On Us” campaign in workplaces similar to the one created to tackle campus sexual assault. It’s “an audacious goal,” the authors write, but “doing so would transform the problem of workplace harassment from being about targets, harassers, and legal compliance, and make it one in which co-workers, supervisors, clients, and customers all have roles to play in stopping harassment.”
The big picture solution to combating this endemic problem, of course, is to get more women in leadership positions, Stellings says. “We definitely think one of, if not the, antidote is shared power.”
A good place for companies to start, she explains, is being intentional about making this a goal. “Companies target for all sorts of things that matter, and they can certainly set a target to say, we want to have our leadership team pull from the full deck of talent. I think setting a goal, for example, around proportional promotion is a good place to start. If your entry level jobs are 50 percent female, what’s the drop-off at each level? How can you make sure you’re promoting equally all the way up the chain?”
Of course, Stellings' statements take for granted that higher-ups are even willing to address these issues, but she does also have advice for victims on getting their supervisors to take their complaints seriously: “I think have them read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal,” she says, “It is very apparent ... that you ignore these complaints at the company’s peril."