Why Do Women Put Up with Harassment at Work?

If You’re Harassed, File a Complaint, Right? Here’s Why It’s Not So Easy.

sexual harassment

In 2014, pop star Kesha made headlines when she filed a lawsuit against her producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, claiming in the suit that he had physically, emotionally, and sexually abused her for 10 years. But, oddly, she kept collaborating with him. And later, she testified that he had not sexually abused her. What happened?

It’s not uncommon, it turns out, for women to continue working relationships with colleagues who have abused or harassed them. And most do not speak out.

“The majority of people who experience sexual assault or sexual harassment whether it's on the job or away from the job don't report it, either to the police or to their employers, explains Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality with the National Women’s Law Center. The major reason? Fear.

“There can be a lot of confusion and fear,” says Deesha Narichania, a domestic violence program coordinator at the Crime Victims Treatment Center at Mount Sinai hospitals in New York City. “Fear of retaliation, of their job being compromised, of being shamed by their peers, of being the one who’s accused of having done something wrong. Fear of their reputation and their life being ruined.”

Consider the case of the many women who spoke up and pressed charges against CBC host Jian Ghomeshi for harassment and assault in and out of the workplace. Even though Ghomeshi formally apologized for his behavior, the judge on the case nevertheless found him not guilty. Each woman, the judge contended, “engaged in conduct” with Ghomeshi after the alleged assaults, which seemed, “out of harmony with the assaultive behavior ascribed to him.”

This logic of the court’s decision subtly implies that Ghomeshi’s colleagues would have had a more credible case if they’d quit their jobs to escape further assault — which begs a question.

Why didn’t the CBC suspend Ghomeshi while looking into these women’s serious claims?

Too often, apparently, companies botch handling alleged workplace abuse. For one, if victims do formally complain, they often face a lengthy investigation — during which they’d have to continue working alongside the accused, according to Raghu. A victim speak with a trusted colleague who can help think through the possible consequences of filing a report.

“I’m not saying that a victim shouldn’t file a report, I'm just saying to be aware that they could experience retaliation [because] the investigation could drag on for several months, and the person who assaulted them could continue to work with them without any change of schedule,” Raghu says. Or worse. “Maybe the victim[s] themselves would be put on leave and [suffer the] loss of income that might come from that. The individual should be prepared for what might happen.”

There can also be confusion around the relationship in general — shame for getting involved with a supervisor, or self-blame for attracting unwanted attention, for example. But like any relationship with a built-in power dynamic, an employee-employer relationship is a risk.

“Many workplaces continue to be a context in which many women, and others, struggle with feeling valued in the workplace for their merits alone…  [and] sexual attention can be compelling because it's a fast-track to recognition” Narichania says. But often, victims allow the coercion because they’re afraid for their job security. “If [workers are] approached by a superior, and they reject them, [they] might ask themselves: what will happen to their job, will they be shunned, will they not be given responsibilities or opportunities.”

In the end, the issue isn’t whether companies or courts will treat victims with respect and honor: It’s about the victimizers’ abuse of power. “It's always up to the person with more structural power to be responsible and to know that if they're taking a risk, they may be held accountable for taking that risk,” Narichania says. “There isn't a general cultural status quo that says that the person in power should hold himself or herself accountable… That needs to change.”

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