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Think You'll Stand Up to Sexual Harassment? Think Again.

Vivia Chen

October 1, 2013

This is a bit sad, but hardly unexpected.

Creep © iofoto - Fotolia.comIf you've been around the block, you've probably seen or experienced sexual harassment in one form or another. It can be relatively subtle (like that guy who keeps leering at women's breasts during meetings) or much more blatant (like the recently ousted mayor of San Diego who groped at his underlings).

You know what it is, but would you report it? The answer is usually no.

But what's surprising is that many of us delude ourselves into thinking that we would take action—and hence take a very harsh view of victims of sexual harassment who don't report it.

This is a form of "double victimization" according to researchers from the University of Utah, Brigham Young University, and Columbia University. The Harvard Business Review blog summarizes the finding:

In an experiment, 83% of women said they would confront a job interviewer who asked such sexually harassing questions as “Do you have a boyfriend?” And the more confrontation they predicted for themselves, the greater their contempt for women who didn’t protest. Yet past research shows that most candidates who face such harassment do nothing to protest.

I find it incredible that 83 percent of women would think that they would do the "right" thing. Are women really that confident these days—or are we being self-righteous?

The research points to self-righteousness. But even worse is how this attitude leads us to judge  victims of harassment who don't take action. Kristina Diekmann, one of the report's authors,  says to University of Utah :

Because people mis-predict that they would take action against the harasser, they condemn the victim who remains passive and socially distance themselves from that victim. So, sexual harassment victims are double-victimized, once by their harasser, and twice by their colleagues who condemn them for remaining passive.

The consequence is that the victim is shunned by co-workers, loses out on work opportunities, and is given negative performance reviews.

Of course, the classic example of this double victimization is Anita Hill. Here's how University of Utah describes that part of the study:

The Anita Hill case offers a classic example of a passive victim. Hill’s claims of repeated sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas during his U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991, and her own perpetual inaction at the time of the alleged events, led to public suspicion and condemnation of Hill among many observers.

Since those hearings, sexual harassment has officially become part of the corporate no-no list. But we all know it still goes on. What's more, we still expect victims to bravely stand up to bad behavior—even though we wouldn't do it ourselves, lest we get scrutinized and stigmatized as some sort of troublemaker.

Not much to show after 20 years, is it?

Related post: Tell Your Daughter About Anita.

 

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 Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.

Comments

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When you are vulnerable financially, and surviving in an extremely devastated job market, it is almost impossible to contemplate risking it all and report a bad boss. I cannot begin to imagine how many people endure sexual harassment in the workplace every day in this awful climate.

The workplace remains hard for women. The power positions remain male dominated. There is subtle, and sometimes internal pressure to "take it". We have all learned from our personal lives that tattle tales don't have many friends and those who don't play by the rules are also ostracized. It just sucks that we haven't progressed enough as a society that all reasonable people, both men and women, find sexual harassment distasteful under all circumstances.

Thank you for posting/writing about this topic. We must continue to raise it because confronting it IS hard. We risk our jobs if we do. We blame ourselves when it happens. but if the poster above went to the boss with one or two other women complaining of behavior, could we find results. Keep talking. Keep writing. Keep complaining.

Ladies -- Comments please. Young woman with more than ample visible cleavage (decolletage and well engineered bra) strikes up conversation at a social event. She is several inches shorter, so that at conversational distance if one looks down to look her in the eye cleavage dominates the scene. It certainly looks like one is staring at her cleavage. The only alternative is to try to carry on the conversation looking over the top of her head. Sexual harassment???

There's a triple bind in sexual harassment. Women who DO report are often subject to backlash in the form of shunning-- even by female co-workers. There are many theories about the motivation for this recognized phenomenon. My favorite is that women want to believe they are "safe" and couldn't be subject to harassment themselves. To hold on to this sense of safety, they believe that the victim invited the harassment. http://www.workharassment.net/index.php/effects-of-sexual-harassment/retaliation-backlash-and-victim-blaming.html


If a woman is subject to sexual harassment, I suggest 12 steps with escalating significance she can take to address the problem in an appendix to my legal thriller Terminal Ambition. (It centers on the fight of a Biglaw female partner to stop sexual harassment and discrimination.)


Sometimes, the problem can be stopped by a direct, but low-key conversation with the harasser. "Come on. Don't be that guy." If that doesn't work, there are other approaches short of nuclear war.

Vivia,
I am so happy you wrote about this topic. While the overt and tactile forms of sexual harassment in the workplace may have diminished, I think that it still exists and lots of us, me included put up with it rather than make waves. This behavior is engendered by both men and women. I currently work at a very large bank. My direct manager is woman. My supervisor is a man and I have caught him on numerous occasions staring at my chest or legs. Other women in the office have said the same of him. I was always a conservative dresser, but now I feel that I am dressing defensively. I feel that if there is nothing to look at then he won't leer. Other than that flaw, he is a very nice and smart person. I often seek his advice.
I know that I am not responsible for his behavior, but I am responsible for its continuation. I am not excusing his behavior, but I would also hate to start anything that could damage his career.
No one else has ever gone to a superior to report their discomfort and I truly believe that if I did, then it would put an end to my career and my path to the exit door would be drawn in bright lines.
This so far is my experience and the reasons that I will continue to dress defensively in the workplace as long as men like him are around. I am not proposing that other women do that, or that they shouldn't confront their "abusers." I am simply stating my own experience and how I have chosen to handle it.
Although, I can't resist those peep toe heels :)

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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