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Three Questions

Three Questions: Prof. Zoe Chance on Responses to Sexual Harassment

On social media and among friends, women around the world are sharing their experiences with workplace sexual harassment and abuse. Ensuring lawful and respectful behavior in the workplace itself is a greater challenge. Professor Zoë Chance explains the research on the subject and suggests ways that both women and male allies can take action to create lasting change.

Professor Zoe Chance also wrote an essay for Psychology Today about some of the factors that prevent women from reporting sexual harassment in the workplace.

What are some of the barriers that prevent women from speaking up about sexual harassment in the workplace?

Ninety percent of women who are harassed in the workplace don’t speak up about it, for both rational and emotional reasons. Rationally, they’re taking huge risks (lose job, face retaliation, risk a lawsuit), facing high costs (get labeled, get blacklisted, lose friends and allies, spend time on the investigation and on looking for another job instead of doing their work), with little to gain (justice? a small probability of a monetary payment not likely to be worth the cost?). And evidence indicates they’re right to be concerned—75% of women who do report harassment report experiencing retaliation. Emotionally, they don’t want to be blamed, or sexualized—again—and they often shame themselves, focusing on what they could have or should have done to prevent the situation or end it sooner than they did. And the huge first-mover disadvantage (i.e., a lone accuser is easy to dismiss, defame, or retaliate against) can prevent anyone from speaking up, even if they might have spoken had other women spoken first.

Does the research provide any guidance on how women can most effectively respond to harassment?

For individual women who experience harassment, sadly, research is much clearer on the high costs of speaking up than on what responses are most effective. It’s not like we could run an experiment in the lab that would have validity in the workplace, and it’s not like we can experimentally harass women in the workplace. But a lot is known about what strategies women do use, and a lot of practical advice is given. Having read and heard many anecdotal stories as a result of writing on this topic, my personal advice would be to recognize that each situation is unique and your best bet is probably to reach out to people you can trust, for advice and support. Handling harassment by someone with power over you and your job is very different from handling bullying by other kids or harassment from strangers and others without direct power over you. From an organizational perspective, we can find inspiration and help in the work of Yale alum Betsy Paluck, now a professor at Princeton, who last week was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “Genius Grant.” She studies bullying and cultures of conflict, finding that selective interventions with social influencers can reduce bullying in schools by 30%.

How can men help?

Thank you for asking, since sexual harassment is (mind-blowingly) so often treated as a women’s issue. A woman facing harassment is vulnerable, ashamed, angry, and scared. And she’s in a weak position to stand up to the man who’s abusing his power over her. So you can stand up for her. Some of the most inspiring stories I’ve heard involved men, alone or in groups, standing up for their female colleagues to see other men stopped or brought to justice. And you can model for other men what it looks like to treat women with respect. And finally, understanding the risks we face in speaking up, you can believe us when we do. And ask us what kind of support we need.

Department: Three Questions