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The Mental Health Costs of Harassment

Unwanted sexual advances undermine women's sense of authenticity.

As more and more high profile men—such as Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Matt Lauer—fall victim to the #MeToo movement, many media stories focus on the huge impact sexual harassment has on women’s paychecks and chances for advancement.

But the mental health consequences for women can also be dire. Not only can they experience high stress and often depression, but their very idea of selfhood can also be undermined. Women’s sense of authenticity is often damaged as they try to cope with unwanted sexual advances. They must change their behavior to try to minimize such advances.

Women face a dilemma that few men ever have to confront. While being urged to be authentic, to be true to the person they really are, to be open and honest, women also confront the need to dissemble, hide, and pretend.

“Women aren’t always true to themselves,” notes the Center for Creative Leadership. “In a vain attempt to live up to organizational norms and expectations, their behaviors sometimes go against their own values. But it’s not easy being a phony. It takes a lot of energy to behave in ways that are out of sync with our true values, priorities, hopes, characteristics, and style.”

Unfortunately, too often the norms in the workplace have been that powerful men are allowed to be predatory and get away with bad behavior.

If women protest, they are grilled about their own actions. What were you wearing? What were you drinking? Why did you wait to come forward?

If women try to just “grin and bear it,” they not only face negative consequences, but they also lose out on the mental health benefits of being authentic.

A study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology by a team of British researchers examined the effect of authenticity on people’s lives. They found that, in general, the more a person acted authentically, the more likely he or she was to be happy and experience subjective and psychological well-being. So, harassment can create a powerful lose-lose health scenario for women.

The media and entertainment industries have been the most visible targets of the movement against sexual harassment. But just as problematic is the world of high tech, where industry leaders often see themselves as the “good guys “ of the corporate world. "Don’t be evil" is Google’s motto.

In the tech industry and the startup community, the level of sexual harassment and its health consequences for women are very high. In First Round Capital’s 2017 survey of venture-backed startup founders, half of the founders told of a personal experience with sexual harassment.

“Over 50% of the 869 founders who took the survey have been or know someone who’s been sexually harassed in the workplace. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the results to this question were extremely gendered — 78% of female founders said they've been sexually harassed or know someone who’s been sexually harassed, compared to 48% of male founders.

They also split on public perception of the issue. 70% of female founders said sexual harassment in the industry is still underreported vs. 35% of male founders. And men were 4 times more likely than women to say the media's overblown the issue (22% vs. 5%).”

Women trying to find money for startups are especially vulnerable, because men hold the purse strings, and without their money, nothing happens.

Such women told CNN horror stories. One woman looking for funds from a German investor said she got an email from the man saying how attractive he thought she was. He added, “I will not leave Berlin until I have sex with you. Deal?” Another woman in the U.S. was meeting with a potential investor and remembers, “I felt my leg being grabbed under the table and I thought, ‘Holy Moley, this is real.’”

The voices in the many MeToo hashtags underscore the heavy price women pay for compromising their authenticity in order to keep their jobs, build their careers, and pay the bills.

Joan Cook, a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University, says that survivors are often scared or angry, “but keep their mouths shut, in fear of negative consequences such as not being believed." However, “Keeping quiet doesn’t make the degradation go away. For many years and decades, survivors live in silence and disgrace, thinking they were the only ones. That there was something terribly unique about them that caused this to occur, that they somehow brought it on themselves; they stew in a spiral of self-loathing.” Nor does the sense of being inauthentic easily disappear.

Many victims tell similar stories of having to forego their authenticity as they put on a smile and deal with unwanted sexual advances.

And powerful men can often just pay off women who complain, reaching agreements that gag their female victims.

For example, gymnast Aly Raisman won six Olympic medals, three of them gold, and she (along with many others) recently went public about being sexually abused by the team doctor while competing on the U.S. national team.

She told 60 Minutes, “I was in denial. I was like, I don’t— I don’t even know what to think. It— you don’t wanna let yourself believe but, you know, I am— I am a victim of— sexual abuse. Like, it’s really not an easy thing to let yourself believe that.”

She struggled to keep her authentic self—the Olympic medal winner—intact, but finally had to face her stress and anxiety as a victim of abuse.

Kathryn Minshew, the founder of the career website The Muse, told The New Yorker about her encounter with an investor when she tried to raise money for the site.

“We went to sit, and the next thing I knew he was so close to me.” She wound up wedged between the arm of a sofa and the man as he leaned into her. She left, rattled and knowing her behavior had not represented her authentic self. “It’s funny, because I think if you had asked me, ‘What would you do in that situation?’ I would have said that I would have been so much more badass and assertive,” she said. “But then it happened…”

Not only do women like Minshew experience stress from having to change behavior to discourage harassers, but they also lose the positive benefits that acting and feeling authentic can deliver.

And, speaking out when you are looking for venture capital has real risks.

Susan Ho and Leiti Hsu, cofounders of the travel startup Journy, were concerned about going public with their sexual harassment by a major Silicon Valley investor.

"When you talk about sexual harassment in tech or in any other industry, it's like dropping a nuclear bomb on your career," Ho said. "That fear of retaliation, of it impacting your business in some way, is so, so real. We have a financial responsibility to do what's best for our business, and if speaking out is going to harm our business, is that OK?"

The question remains: Will the rash of media stories that have led to the firing or resignation of powerful men be just a flash in the pan—especially in the Tech World?

One problem is that few women hold the top jobs in tech companies. Melinda Gates, the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, says that “the asymmetry of power is ripe for abuse.”

But perhaps the chorus of voices from the #MeToo movement is having an effect.

The recent Uber sexual harassment scandal that led the CEO to resign caused financial upheaval for the firm. Patrick Quinlan, CEO of the analytics company Convercent told The New Yorker that he has seen a change in the way tech companies are facing the issue. Up until the recent past, “companies wanted to have the ostrich view of ethics, which is, ‘If I don’t hear it and see it, it’s not happening,’” he says. “A big change we have seen is that companies realize you’re much better off identifying the problem and working to solve it. That evolution is happening fast.”

This is an encouraging first step, but will circumstances change so that women no longer have to pay an outsized price in terms of their mental health and their sense of authenticity? Will the #MeToo hashtags become a thing of the past?

The answer, at present, is still unknown.

More from Rosalind C. Barnett, Ph.D., and Caryl Rivers
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