Sexual Harassment Victims Suffer in Silence: Here´s Why

Sexual harassment victims quit bosses not jobs, and suffer the consequences

Posted Oct 14, 2017

Demonstrating safety in numbers, a steady stream of victims have bravely come forward to accuse Harvey Weinstein of abusive behavior ranging from sexual harassment to sexual assault.  Amidst a chorus of inquiries about why they did not come forward earlier, many have explained the reasons for the delay.  Among the variety of explanations are some common themes:  fear of retaliation, loss of career prospects, damage to their reputation, and conflicting emotions about a man many of them viewed as a friend and mentor—at least until unwanted sexual advances were made.

Sexual harassment is an invisible epidemic because it is severely underreported.  Having spent years prosecuting sex crimes, I can share that both research and practice demonstrates that particularly when the suspect and victim are well acquainted, delayed disclosure is closer to the rule than the exception.  This is true in some cases even when the victim does not fear the loss of his or her career.  Feelings of confusion, guilt, shame, and divided loyalties often result in an unwillingness to report the exploitive behavior immediately after the incident, if at all. 

Research corroborates the fact that victims are less likely to report sexual assault when they have a close relationship, either personal or professional, with the perpetrator.   A study by Bicanic et al. entitled “Predictors of delayed disclosure of rape in female adolescents and young adults,” (2015) found that victims who delayed disclosure of rape were less likely to report the crime to law enforcement or use medical services than victims who disclosed earlier.[i]  They also identified several factors that affected victim disclosure.  They found delayed disclosure to be more common among adolescents than young adults, victims who were threatened, penetrated versus assaulted, and victims who were close with their assailant.

Yet the reluctance to report acquaintance abuse does not end in young adulthood—particularly when the abuse occurs in the workplace.  Cases like Harvey Weinstein´s reveal that the reluctance to report abuse by a colleague or especially a superior remains a significant problem.

As victims suffer in silence, the toxic workplace environment takes its physical, emotional, and often financial toll—in terms of absenteeism, and eventually attrition, which can impact future career prospects.

Negative Career Consequences: Sexual Harassment Victims Don´t Quit Jobs They Quit Bosses   

Some people walk away from even lucrative jobs to escape sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet research reveals that leaving a job to avoid further on the job harassment can adversely affect a career.

Research by Heather McLaughlin et al. (2017) entitled “The Economic and Career Effects of Sexual Harassment On Working Women” reveals that in the workplace, sexual harassment contributes to financial difficulties, primarily by instigating a job change.[ii] They note that while some women report harassment, many choose to just leave the jobs instead to escape the harassment, which can have a significant impact on a woman´s career attainment.  They note that other women leave due to frustration due to an employer displaying an inadequate response to having reported the harassment.

McLaughlin et al. discuss prior research indicating that sexual harassment has a negative impact on both physical and mental health, including depression that can last up to a decade.  They also note that harassment can create self-doubt and anger, which in turn could adversely affect future employment, and that sexual harassment leads to absenteeism, withdrawal, and reduced job satisfaction, and can adversely affect relationships with co-workers.

Interestingly, McLaughlin et al. also found that women in their study who were not direct targets of harassment were ostracized by coworkers for challenging workplace misogyny—a finding with significant application in the modern workplace.

Safety in Numbers

The failure to report sexual harassment, while arguably the norm, continues to be a significant problem with long ranging negative consequences.  Hopefully, the public discussion of this critical societal issue that accompanies each high profile sexual harassment case that makes news will empower more victims to come forward, inspire companies to re-examine workplace culture, and increase perception of the red flags that can help employers and employees alike identify problem employees before another victim is claimed.

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert.  She is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on interpersonal relationships, sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD

Find a full listing of Dr. Patrick´s Psychology Today posts at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/why-bad-looks-good

[i] Iva A. E. Bicanic, Lieve M. Hehenkam1, Elise M. van de Putte, Arjen J. van Wijk, and Ad de Jongh, “Predictors of delayed disclosure of rape in female adolescents and young adults,” European Journal of Psychotraumatology 6: 25883, 2015.

[ii] Heather McLaughlin, Christopher Uggen, and Amy Blackstone, “The Economic and Career Effects of Sexual Harassment on Working Women,” Gender & Society 31, Issue 3, 333 – 358, 2017.