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Sexual Harassment at Work: Why Bystanders Fail to Intervene

Gender and objectification of women impact sexual harassment reporting.

The Insidious Normalization of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein is just the latest example of how power imbalance between sexual harassment victims and abusers contribute to a culture of silence. Although billed as the “worst kept secret” in Hollywood, previous attempts to document the allegations were unsuccessful due to the reluctance of victims to speak publically.[i]

A culture of silence can produce a culture of complacency when it comes to tolerating sexually harassing behavior. Whether a harasser is creating a toxic workplace or pitching quid pro quo arrangements, seeking to trade career advancement opportunities for sexual favors, there are red flags. Usually plenty of them. Unfortunately, harassers are often protected by a culture of inaction.

Calling Out Bystander Non-Intervention: Naming and Shaming

At some point after each high profile case of sexual harassment, the focus shifts from the perpetrator to his or her colleagues and co-workers, in order to determine who knew what when. We wonder whether a harasser was surrounded by enablers who contributed to a false belief in the appropriateness or normalization of the harassing behavior, which in turn caused it to continue unabated.

Bystander intervention is of critical importance when a harasser holds a position of prominence, because victims are far more reluctant to come forward within a relationship of power imbalance. Yet bystanders often fail to intervene. Here are some of the reasons why.

Objectification of Women Normalizes Harassing Behavior

Research on exposure to objectifying media (media that depicts treating women as objects) may explain the lukewarm response some individuals exhibit to the plight of sexual harassment victims. A study by Galdi et al. (2017) entitled “Defending the Victim of Sexual Harassment” found that media exposure to sexual harassment portrayals can normalize inappropriate behavior and reduce the likelihood of intervening on behalf of a sexual harassment victim.[ii]

Specifically, they found that study participants who viewed objectified television portrayals of women (versus a control video) were less likely to intervene when observing a job interview of a female applicant via electronic chat when the interviewer began to engage in harassing behavior.

They concluded that objectification of women may normalize inappropriate and unethical behavior, reduce the perception of sexual harassment, and delay assistance to sexual harassment victims.

Men and Women View Harassment Differently

Research by Dillon et al. (2015) revealed that gender is another factor that impacts whether individuals view workplace conduct as sexual harassment.[iii] They exposed study participants to five vignettes using gender neutral names depicting possible workplace sexual harassment, as well as the scenario of a supervisor coming into the office of an employee and stating: “If you spend the night with me, then I will give you a promotion.”

They found that women were more uncomfortable with scenarios depicting possible sexual harassment, and more likely to perceive a depiction of quid pro quo sexual harassment situation as threatening, rather than a social exchange, as compared to males.

The False Belief that Beautiful is Good

Sometimes, bystander perception is fueled by the respective levels of attractiveness of the perpetrator and the victim. A study by Herrera et al. (2016) aptly entitled “Is the beautiful always so good?” examined how physical attractiveness impacts perceptions of harassment. They discovered that to an outside observer reading a scenario where a male employee harassed a female employee, the scenario was more likely to be viewed as sexual harassment when the female employee was attractive.[iv]

The study also noted that as a result of “beautiful is good” stereotypical thinking, behavior is less likely to be viewed as sexual harassment when committed by an attractive perpetrator, due to the predisposition to view attractive people as having positive qualities.

If You See Something, Say Something: Recognize and Report

Through education and empowerment of victims and witnesses, we strive to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace through increased reporting. Bystander intervention means that victims do not need to suffer in silence. Recognizing sexual harassment is the first step, but reporting it is the goal so that history does not repeat itself.



[ii] Silvia Galdi, Anne Maass, and Mara Cadinu, “Defending the Victim of Sexual Harassment: The Influence of Civil Courage and Media Exposure,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 41, no. 3 (2017) 338-351.

[iii] Haley M. Dillon, Lora E. Adair, Gary L. Brase, “A threatening exchange: Gender and life history strategy predict perceptions and reasoning about sexual harassment,” Personality and Individual Differences 72 (2015) 195–199.

[iv] Antonio Herrera, M. Carmen Herrera, and Francisca Exposito, ”Is the beautiful always so good? Influence of physical attractiveness on the social perception of sexual harassment,” International Journal of Social Psychology 31, no. 2 (2016): 224-253.