With the recent exposure of high profile celebrities and executives being accused of sexual harassment and abuse, the topic of harassment in the workplace is at the forefront. Celebrities and other influential figures have opened the conversation for those who have been dealing with this issue in silence, with the movement #metoo. This movement has also shined a light on how many people from all walks of life have been affected by harassment or abuse. It’s important to talk about the silence and what is helping victims and survivors step out and share their stories without fear. Let’s not let this be a passing movement.
How Common is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment happens more often than we think, a 2015 survey showed 1 in 3 women between the ages of 18-34 say they have been sexually harassed at work. Meanwhile, the number of sexual harassment complaints filed by men in the U.S. has more than tripled in recent years. We tend to forget this issue is affecting more people than we think because the only times we hear about sexual harassment in the news is when people in powerful positions get accused.
Some reports focus on the aggressor, but when victims or survivors are mentioned they are met with scrutiny, victim-blaming and accused of false reporting, thus turning away from the real issue at hand. But once the controversy gets old and a new news cycle begins, we forget that people are dealing with sexual harassment as we speak. Questioning and second guessing a victim’s story is silencing, but speaking out is not as simple as it sounds.
Reporting Sexual Harassment
A 2015 survey showed that 71% of women don’t report sexual harassment, and even fewer bystanders report harassment they have witnessed. Despite the recent reports against a top Hollywood producer, Uber’s CEO and other top executives at Amazon, the number of sexual harassment claims have actually gone down by more than one thousand, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
There are many reasons why victims remain quiet, and a Harvard business review article focused on some of the most common reasons why an overwhelming amount of sexual harassment cases go unreported. The article found three reasons; fear of retaliation, the bystander effect, and a toxic masculine culture that permits sexual harassment.
According to California sexual harassment lawyers, retaliation happens when an employer takes action against you after filing a claim against them. You could get demoted, get salary reduction or face exclusion from staff activities. The bystander effect, a social phenomenon by which witnesses are less likely to help a victim when others are present, is further confounded when a harasser holds a position of power. Bystanders tend to keep quiet with the same fear of losing their jobs or other types of retaliation. If they see no one is taking action, they might think it’s best not to intervene. Although a bystander might want to report what they witness, they may feel that help from just one person won’t make a difference.
In many cases, sexual harassment also goes unnoticed. For women, inappropriate comments and unwarranted flirting is something we are used to dealing with on a daily basis, so when it happens at work, we could easily ignore it or not see it as anything important. This is why speaking on the reasons that keep victims and survivors quiet is so crucial.
I asked John Winer, an attorney at “Winer, Mckenna & Burritt,” a law firm in Oakland California, the most commonly asked questions and answers about sexual harassment that could help victims and survivors speak out. His answers follow below:
What do you need to file a sexual harassment suit?
“Before pursuing a civil suit under California law, you should file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It is important that the complaint specifically identifies the harassment and the perpetrators. If an employee files with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, he or she can ask the agency not to investigate the claim but, rather, immediately issue a right-to-sue letter.
Generally speaking, a plaintiff must file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within one year of the harassing conduct. A plaintiff must file a claim with one of the governing entities before filing a lawsuit. If the sexual harassment has occurred over a long period of time, the plaintiff can sometimes rely on the continuing violation doctrine. Under this doctrine, if it is found to apply, the sexual harassment complaint is timely if any of the discriminatory practices continues into the one-year limitations period.”
I’m scared to report the harassment because I fear that I will be retaliated against or fired. What should I do?
“The California law protections against retaliation for reporting sexual harassment are even stronger than the laws that prevent the harassment from occurring. The law strictly prohibits an employer from retaliating against anyone who has opposed practices of sexual harassment and/or discrimination or has filed a complaint, testified or assisted in any proceeding involving sexual harassment. If the employer retaliates, the employee has yet another cause of action to sue the employer. There has been a recent trend in California cases for employees to receive stronger verdicts for the retaliatory conduct of the employer than for the original sexual harassment.”
Why don’t victims report sexual harassment?
“The main reason is fear, and the fear emanates from many different sources:
● Fear of not being believed
● Fear of retaliation
● Fear of being shamed
● Fear of credibility being attacked
● Fear of being ignored
● Fear of being ostracized in the workplace
● Fear of being accused of “asking for it”
● Fear of the past being exposed
● Fear of losing a job
● Fear of getting another job if it becomes public that they have brought a sexual harassment action.”
What would help victims come forward?
“By far, the most significant factor is a feeling that they are not alone. That there are other victims willing to come forward. That there are witnesses willing to support them. Also, if there is evidence, such as text messages, photos, videos or emails, it emboldens victims to come forward.”
Do you think the current media coverage on sexual harassment is helping victims speak out?
“Yes. There is clearly a movement that has arisen out of the high profile celebrity cases. The women who do come forward are believed; are supported by other women and supported by the media itself. The fact that high profile victim’s such as successful and famous actresses and TV personalities have come forward is empowering women everywhere. I think the feeling is that if these famous women, who have these wonderful careers are willing to risk everything to end sexual harassment, it sends a powerful message to everyone throughout America. It helps women to overcome the 10 fear factors. And other than Donald Trump, the predator lobby has been silenced and overwhelmed by brave woman after brave woman willing to risk careers to end sexual harassment.”
What is the best way companies could prevent sexual harassment?
“The single most important prevention mechanism is for a company to take sexual harassment seriously and not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. Every company has sexual harassment policies, but they are meaningless if they aren’t enforced. A company must have an HR department that low level workers can trust to support them rather than the managers and officers in the company. When someone comes forward with a sexual harassment complaint, the assumption must be that they are telling the truth until proven otherwise. That is very rare. Until recently, anyway, the assumption has always been that the victim is lying. No one will come forward if they are not believed and if people don’t come forward, sexual harassment will go unstopped. Also, it is critical that prompt, swift and appropriate action is taken to discipline the harassers. That a zero tolerance policy really means zero tolerance; not, you get a warning or a slap on the wrist this time and next time and next time. A message must be sent to all employees of a company that sexual harassment is taken seriously and a victim coming forward with a righteous claim is a heroine, not a pariah.”
What do you think of the “me too” campaign which is circulating around social media sites?
“I think it is great, because it forms the very basis of the movement that is afoot. A tidal wave of sexual harassment victims willing to come forward is so much more powerful than an individual complaint. Like everything else, there is power in numbers. And coming forward, can be just so empowering, especially in the current atmosphere. Sexual harassment is like anything else. It can’t be stopped while it is a dirty secret. Once it is out in the open and examined, litigated and explored, the power of the perpetrators is minimized while the power of the victims is maximized, whether it is through large verdicts, companies taking the issue seriously, but most important of all, through society in general concluding that this is a problem that is worthy of our attention and must be stopped and ended.”
Written by Stephanie Murguia, a consumer safety and health writer with Safer-America. She holds a Journalism degree from California State University Northridge.