By Stefanie K. Johnson, Jessica Kirk & Ksenia Keplinger
OUR recent interviews with 31 women in predominantly male industries pointed to three potential reasons why it can be difficult to speak up about sexual harassment:
- Fear of retaliation. Many of the women we interviewed said they did not report harassment against themselves or others for fear that the harasser or the organization would retaliate. Janet, a public-relations executive, saw the chief legal officer of her company sexually harass an employee, but didn’t report it. She remembers thinking, “It would be political suicide if I complained about him.”
- The bystander effect. Another reason individuals may fail to speak out against sexual harassment is something called the bystander effect, which says that we’re less likely to help a victim when others are present. Carla, an urban planner, explained how she reacted to a male colleague making an inappropriate remark to her: “I was just kind of dumbfounded. I just really didn’t expect it. I didn’t know what to say…. He said it in front of another woman who I was talking to, and we both kind of looked at each other and was like what? Did he really just say that?” But neither woman did anything about it.
- Masculine culture. In very masculine work cultures, some men use the subjugation of women as a way to relate to other men and prove their masculinity, while reinforcing women’s lower status. At the same time, women who want to be part of the high-status group may play along with sexual harassment because they don’t want to be further alienated from the high-status group—men. Women may even start to adopt the same behaviors as men to fit in and be “one of the guys.” This creates an ironic dynamic in which women ignore or downplay sexual harassment to gain access to the “boys’ club,” while men use sexual harassment to keep women out.
Stefanie K. Johnson is an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. Jessica Kirk is a doctoral student and Ksenia Keplinger is a postdoctoral researcher at Leeds.