Sexual harassment: A workplace pandemic

The year was 1980. It was my first job in private industry and I was working in a division of a company that would later become part of what is now Verizon.  To make a long story short, I was asked to develop a communication program in response to an incident of sexual harassment of a female employee in our southern Georgia division location. The president of the division said he never wanted what happened to her to happen again.

There was little information on this topic and no communication materials. The only research that existed was a 1976 study done by Redbook magazine. We were at square one. Over the course of the next few months, we developed a short film, a policy, a reporting procedure, a brochure and a meeting leader’s guide. These materials were aimed at helping supervisors discuss this topic with their teams and let employees know that the company was focused on eliminating sexual harassment from the workplace.

In the process of working on this project, I was promoted to a corporate role, and the program became a U.S. company-wide in the U.S. Later in 1980, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidelines on sexual harassment.

Companies were trying to figure out how to respond to the new guidelines and how to talk about a subject that many felt uncomfortable with. I became even more aware of and sensitive to the issues of sexual harassment and its disturbing consequences. It knew no boundaries. It happened between and among people of different sexes and the same sex. It happened to people in factory jobs and in the boardroom—people starting out in their careers and more experienced professionals.

We ended up marketing and selling the program, “Sexual harassment…it’s not part of the job!” throughout the country. I spoke about it for several years, from the Harvard Business School to crowded auditoriums, predominantly male. Fortunately, due to the enlightened management of the company I worked for, we were able to give voice to an issue that had no voice. It was groundbreaking, courageous and bold. We believed our efforts would make a difference.

Fast forward to 2017.  Now, reflecting on current events regarding sexual harassment, I think about whether we have made much progress and, if so, what that has been. While the jokes may not be as rampant, and the percentage of women in more senior roles has improved, the media stories of late make it clear that the problem is persistent and unfortunately, pervasive.

Extent of the problem and progress

Studies are inconsistent regarding the percentage of women who have been sexually harassed at work. One study shows that one in four have witnessed someone else being harassed and 23 percent report they have experienced sexual harassment.Another survey reports that one in three women have been harassed. But it is not definitive. Regardless of the inconsistent data, the numbers are huge and it is beyond fathomable how big an issue this is. With 74.6 million women in the labor force, making up roughly 47 percent of U.S. workers, that represents more than 18.5 million women experiencing sexual harassment of some form if we accept the lower number of one in four.

Clearly this is not primarily an issue limited to Hollywood celebrities, although some have given voice and brought significant media attention to the issue. Importantly, now it is in the forefront of public’s attention. However, most women work as nurses, retail clerks, administrative assistants and teachers. According to Catalyst, in 2016, the median weekly earnings for women for full-time work was US$749 (compared to US$915 for men). Hardly celebrity salaries.

Have we made progress? The 2016 report issued by the EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace confirms not as much as we should. Even 30 years after the U.S. Supreme Court held (in Meritor Savings Bank versus Vinson, 1986) that workplace harassment was an actionable form of discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, it seems that while we have made progress, as the EEOC report acknowledges, “we sadly and too often still have far to go.”

Senior editor of the Harvard Business Review Sarah Green Carmichael points out that despite the fact that 98 percent of companies today have anti-sexual harassment policies and 70 percent provide some type of training on how to recognize and address it, the results remain disappointing. She points that out that “what’s really changed is not our attitudes about harassment, but rather the brightness and staying power of that spotlight.”

In fact, in a 2017 survey conducted 40 years after the original Redbook survey was conducted indicates we are making virtually no progress. While the basis of the comparison of the two surveys is “uneven” due to some methodology differences, the results are very similar. “In terms of the overarching question of whether women see workplace sexual harassment as a problem, 92 percent of the 1976 recipients agreed, compared with 99 percent today. So, why has there been little, if any, change?

An underlying issue: Silence

What keeps someone silent when they are aware something is going on that is wrong, unethical or even illegal in the workplace such as sexual harassment? Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, in her book The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion: Our Social Skin, observed that silence can manifest itself in different ways: “People who hold majority opinions and those in the minority will often keep quiet on issues that are important to them, but they’ll do it for different reasons.”

What are those reasons? Elizabeth Suhay, a political scientist, explains those reasons stem from a misjudgment about the pervasiveness of their opinions. “The majority just assumes that everybody thinks like them,” she says, “and people in the minority think they’re the only ones.”

Silence is associated with many virtues that we as a society hold in high regard. We look at silence as a form of modesty, humility, and respect for others—an ingrained sense of etiquette.  People silence themselves to avoid embarrassment, confrontation and potential danger. So, when someone is silent about the issue of sexual harassment, do they believe there is danger in expressing the truth? Yes.

Most organizations send the message, either explicitly or implicitly, that conforming and going along with the status quo is a safe way for individuals to hold on to their jobs and their careers. How often do people stay silent because they are afraid that doing otherwise would be a career ender? Often. People remaining silent rather than expressing a difference is pervasive, regardless if the person is in a group or operating on their own. They can fear a loss of their own stature in an organization or ultimately expulsion for raising an issue. Does that influence reporting occurrences of sexual harassment? Yes, says the EEOC.

EEOC Commissioners Feldblum and Lipnic state, “Workplace harassment too often goes unreported.” They state that the “common workplace responses by those who experience sex-based harassment are to avoid the harasser, deny or downplay the gravity of the situation, or attempt to ignore, forget or endure the behavior.” In fact, the least common response to harassment is to take some sort of action—either to report the harassment inside the organization or seek assistance through legal channels. “Roughly three out of four individuals who experience harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager or union representative about the harassing conduct. Employees who experience harassment fail to report the harassing behavior or to file a complaint because they fear disbelief of their claim, inaction on their claim, blame or social or professional retaliation.”

Author Mary Gentile, in her book, Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak your Mind When You Know What’s Right, says that challenging the assumptions about ethical issues often isn’t about distinguishing what is right or wrong, but knowing how to act on your values despite opposing pressure.

James Detert and Amy Edmondson assert, based on their interviews with employees, that when considering speaking up about a wrongdoing or issue in the workplace, the perceived risk to employees of speaking up was very personal and immediate. Employees had to weigh the future value of reporting an ethical breach to the organization versus the risk to their own reputations and situations if they brought issues to life. Ultimately, they found “people often played it safe by keeping quiet. Their frequent conclusion seemed to be, ‘When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.’”

But in addition to these reasons, there are others. Similar to victims of sexual assault, victims of sexual harassment often feel embarrassed, ranging from feelings that they somehow must have brought this on themselves, or somehow provoked the harasser to scrutinizing their dress or everyday behavior. And they may feel stupid or have self-loathing. They may think, for example, how could they have allowed themselves to get into a position where this could happen? Or doubt themselves and their interpretation of events; such as whether they misconstrued a touch, a comment or an action. Many victims are filled with self-doubt, thinking they should have been more savvy and blaming themselves for the compromised position they found themselves to be in.

Written by Jacqueline Strayer for CW Magazine.