“I assessed the situation and chose not to file a complaint. I had every right to make that choice. And until society is willing to accept the validity of claims of harassment, no matter how privileged or powerful the harasser, it is a choice women will continue to make.
-Anita Hill, in Speaking Truth to Power, on why she didn’t speak up sooner
We understand you haven’t understood how commonly we’re sexually harassed at work, because it happens out of sight and we usually don’t speak up about it. And we understand you don’t understand why we don’t speak up. It’s not just Harvey Weinstein’s targets who kept silent; ninety percent of us who get harassed at work don’t file a complaint. And we understand our silence—especially if we keep working with the harasser—might lead you to question our motives and our veracity. The short answer is that we don’t speak up because we’re not stupid. But if you want the long answer, here are seven reasons we don’t speak up against the powerful men who sexually harass us.
1.We don’t want to be defined by it
Whatever the outcome of speaking up, it can influence how everyone thinks of us. Look at Anita Hill. If our allegation is deemed credible, it makes us “a victim of sexual harassment,” or at best, “a sexual harassment accuser.” If the abuser’s denial is deemed more credible, as is often the case, we can be labeled “delusional,” “attention-seeking,” “unstable,” “vengeful,” “lying,” “gold-digging,” “jealous,” “conceited,” “whiner,” “too sensitive,” “promiscuous,” “erotomaniacal,” and more. We don’t want these labels. And we don’t want you to feel you have to be careful around us in case we might accuse you. And we don’t want you to have to think about sex when you see us or hear our name. At work, we want to be known for our work.
2.The costs far outweigh the benefits
Speaking up means committing a tremendous amount of time and energy, and taking huge risks. The reporting and investigation take time (even years), in a process likely to humiliate us. We’ll probably have to leave our job precipitously (even if we’re not fired, we can’t keep working for a man we’ve accused). We may not have another job option, and we fear getting black-listed for making trouble. We’ll have to repeatedly deal with the power abuser, repeat the ugly things he said or did to us, and fear his reprisals. Including a potential lawsuit. The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has found that 75 percent of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some kind of retaliation. We have little to win, much to lose, and few we can trust.
3.We lack allies
First, we can’t expect to remain anonymous, in part because the harasser has a right to know what he’s accused of. “Very few retaliation cases we have were not triggered by reporting the problem to human resources,” says Boston-based attorney Jim Weliky. Second, we have relatively few friends at work. Herminia Ibarra writes about her finding that women have separate social networks for work and play, “Sometimes this was by conscious choice. Rarely was it harmless.” Our harassers, on the other hand, have plenty of friends and allies at work. And since they don’t want to see him as a predator, confirmation bias leads them to attend to evidence supporting his story, and to discount evidence supporting ours. We’d love to have your help, though of course, if you speak up to support us, you’ll face the same risk of retaliation we do.
4.There’s a first-mover disadvantage
Although women’s collective voices can be powerful, as when the Weinstein case finally broke in 2017 and more than 40 women came forward, there’s great risk in going first. Often, we don’t know if there are any other victims, and we never know if they’ll speak up. Lone accusers are easy to dismiss.
5. We don’t expect you to believe us
We don’t usually have evidence, and we don’t want your subjective biases determining the outcome of a “he said, she said” debate. And many of us realize our emotions can undermine our credibility. Our anger gets attributed to our nature (“she’s an angry person,” “she’s out of control”), whereas your anger (and his) gets attributed to the situation. And unfortunately, the most extreme accusations are least likely to be believed.
6.We don’t want to be blamed
When we speak up, attention is turned to us. What were we wearing? Were we drinking? Did we lead him on? Did we say no? Did we fight back? Were we flirtatious? What’s our sexual history? Where did it happen? What were we doing there? Why didn’t we stop it? Even when we speak up, we get blamed for not speaking up sooner.
7.We shame ourselves
Perhaps the saddest reason for not speaking up is our own shame. Even if we did nothing to invite sexual attention, we may feel responsible. He may have mistaken our friendliness for sexual interest, as many men do. We may have ignored red flags and made poor decisions. We kick ourselves for having believed he was interested in what we had to say. (Imagine if you had naively shown up for a work meeting in a hotel room.) We also know if we admit to ignoring red flags or making poor decisions, it undermines our credibility. We fear being seen as having invited sexual advances, or of not being sincere in our objection to them. And being ashamed of not having spoken up earlier makes it harder to speak up later.
So, perhaps now you can understand why most of the time, we try to handle the harassment ourselves, privately. And in understanding the tremendous risks we face in speaking up, men: please believe us when we do. As shame researcher Brené Brown writes, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
Thank you for caring enough to read this, so we can get beyond treating sexual harassment as a women’s issue.