Why Women Do Not Report Sexual Harassment at Work

Why Women Do Not Report Sexual Harassment at Work

According to a recent article in The New York Times, a large number of women experience sexual harassment at work, but a large percentage fail to report it. Many of these women work in jobs that require advanced degrees, and many of their jobs are prestigious. Yet the fear of retaliation, according to studies, is a strong enough motivating factor for those women to avoid reporting the sexual harassment and, in many cases, to continue enduring it. What are the long-term effects of the failure to report sexual harassment and how it is viewed in our culture?

When Women Do Not Report Harassment, Employers See Harassment as a Non-Issue

The article in The New York Times emphasizes that one of the biggest problems associated with the failure to report sexual harassment at work—aside from, of course, the immediate injury to the employee who is being harassed—is that employers start to view sexual harassment as a non-issue, or they assume that it “was not a problem.” To be sure, when women eventually do file sexual harassment claims and are questioned about incidents of harassment that they did not report at the time, even judges and juries tend to assume that the harassment “was not a problem or that plaintiffs had other motives.”

If we want to change the culture surrounding sexual harassment reporting, we need to change those perceptions. Making such a change could also result in fewer women fearing retaliation at work in the event that they do report incidents of sexual harassment. A meta-analysis of studies that was recently conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business determined that “only a quarter to a third of people who have been harassed at work report it to a supervisor or union representative,” while only “2 percent to 13 percent file a formal complaint.”

Why Do Women Avoid Reporting?

As we mentioned, the most common reason that women do not report sexual harassment is due to a fear of retaliation: they believe they could be fired for filing a sexual harassment complaint. Yet another common reason is that many women who do indeed experience sexual harassment do not believe their experience rises to the level of illegality. One study showed that about 25 percent of women surveyed indicated that they had experienced sexual harassment at work—in those specific terms—but when asked about whether they had endured “specific behaviors, like inappropriate touching or pressure for sexual favors,” the number of women doubles.

Retaliation is illegal. However, studies show that women who report sexual harassment do, in large part, tend to face adverse actions at work and in their professional lives. One of the major issues that employers and workplaces largely focus on defending their own actions rather than thinking about how to protect women who have been subject to harassment. Researchers emphasize that companies need to create a culture, “from the top leaders on down,” in which sexual harassment reporting is encouraged and taken seriously.

What can companies do? The article offers these tips to improve workplace culture when it comes to sexual harassment prevention and reporting:

  • Authorize multiple employees to receive sexual harassment complaints (so that employees can report to someone with whom they are comfortable);
  • Hire an ombudsman at the workplace;
  • Promote women to positions of power in the company;
  • Require training in “how to speak up as a bystander,” and how to be a good colleague (rather than always training employees on behaviors to avoid);
  • Institute “proportional consequences” to encourage employees to report sexual harassment.

Contact a Chicago Sexual Harassment Lawyer

If you have been subject to sexual harassment at work, we know it can be difficult to report the incident. However, you should feel confident filing a claim with an experienced Chicago sexual harassment attorney on your side. Contact the Law Office of Mitchell A. Kline today.