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It's not just Fox: Why women don't report sexual harassment

A man poses for a photo in front of a Bill O’Reilly poster on display outside Fox News studio in New York, April 7, 2017.
Hilary Swift | The New York Times
A man poses for a photo in front of a Bill O’Reilly poster on display outside Fox News studio in New York, April 7, 2017.

A male colleague grabbing her leg. Another one suggestively rubbing her back. Others at work dinners discussing who they'd want to sleep with.

Jane Park talked about experiencing all of this behavior in her career in business consulting and strategy. Never has she reported any of it to human resources or management.

"It's made into such a big deal that you have to make a decision: Do you want to ruin your career? Do you want this to be everything that you end up being about?" said Ms. Park, who is now chief executive of Julep, a beauty company she founded. "What you really want to happen is that it doesn't happen again."

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Her choice is more common than not, social science research shows.

Employers, judges and juries often use women's failure to report harassment as evidence that it was not a problem or that plaintiffs had other motives. But only a quarter to a third of people who have been harassed at work report it to a supervisor or union representative, and 2 percent to 13 percent file a formal complaint, according to a meta-analysis of studies by Lilia Cortina of the University of Michigan and Jennifer Berdahl of the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business.

Mostly they fear retaliation, and with good reason, research shows.

In response to a New York Times report this month of payouts to women who had accused the Fox news host Bill O'Reilly of sexual harassment, 21st Century Fox, Fox News's parent company, said: "No current or former Fox News employee ever took advantage of the 21st Century Fox hotline to raise a concern about Bill O'Reilly, even anonymously."

In interviews, women who worked at Fox said they didn't complain to human resources because they feared they would be fired.

Some women who experience harassment confront the perpetrator or confide in friends or family, the meta-analysis found. But the most common response is to avoid the person, play down what happened or ignore the behavior.

Some don't report a problem because they don't think their experience qualifies as illegal harassment. An analysis of 55 representative surveys found that about 25 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment, but when they are asked about specific behaviors, like inappropriate touching or pressure for sexual favors, the share roughly doubles. Those numbers are broadly consistent with other survey findings.

Many victims, who are most often women, fear they will face disbelief, inaction, blame or societal and professional retaliation. That could be hostility from supervisors, a bad reference to future employers or the loss of job opportunities. Their fears are grounded in reality, researchers have concluded. In one study of public-sector employees, two-thirds of workers who had complained about mistreatment described some form of retaliation in a follow-up survey.

"They become troublemakers — nobody wants to hire them or work with them anymore," Ms. Berdahl said.

Paradoxically, official harassment policies and grievance procedures often end up creating obstacles to women's ability to assert their rights, according to research by Anna-Maria Marshall, a sociologist at the University of Illinois.

"That is in part because companies put them into place as mini litigation defense centers," Ms. Marshall said. "The way employers deal with it is to prepare to show a court or jury that they did everything they could, rather than to protect women in the workplace."

There are many ways that company cultures discourage people who are harassed from reporting it.

Sometimes the harasser is a superstar — someone who makes the company so much money that he feels powerful and uninhibited in his behavior because the company has considerable incentive to look the other way.

The more someone has a reputation for harassing, the less likely a woman is to complain, Ms. Berdahl said: "It's natural to conclude that if he's been getting away with this for a long time, then the organization tolerates it, so why become the problem yourself by going to H.R.?"

Other times the human resources department has no interest in helping the employee — or there is no such department at all. This is common in Silicon Valley, where companies grow so fast — and where disdain for slow-moving bureaucracy runs so deep — that human resources officials often serve only to recruit employees.

In February, a former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler, wrote that when she reported to the Uber human resources department that her manager had tried persuading her to have sex with him on her first official day on her new team, the department declined to take action. It said she could change teams or accept what would probably be a poor performance review from the manager. Uber has a new human resources executive and is doing an internal investigation.

Ellen Pao, a former partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, described an atmosphere of sexism and harassment at the venture capital firm — with little recourse. In fact, it had no human resources department. She sued and lost a high-profile trial.

Organizations that are very hierarchical or masculine can breed more harassment, and less reporting of it, according to studies, because gendered power dynamics are a big driver. That's one reason that harassment has been rampant — and underreported — in the military.

Most sizable companies have policies banning sexual harassment and require some sort of training in what it is and how to report it. But much of the training has been shown to be ineffective, and at worst can backfire.

The best way to avoid sexual harassment and ensure that it's reported when it happens is to bake it into company culture, from the top leaders on down, executives and researchers say.

"When you have an effective H.R. department that is supported by leadership, people feel safe about reporting harassment," said Bettina Deynes, vice president for H.R. at the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional association. "It has a lot to do with the type of H.R. department: The motive is not the legal liability, but the culture you want."

Culture is a squishy concept, but companies can do concrete things. One counterintuitive idea is to reward managers when complaints of harassment increase in their department, because it means they're creating an environment where people are comfortable reporting it, according to a frank report published in June by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Here are some other ideas from the commission and researchers in the field:

  • Authorize dozens of employees throughout the organization to receive complaints, so that people can report to someone they're comfortable with.
  • Hire an ombudsman.
  • Promote more women to positions of power.
  • Train people not in what not to do, but in how to be civil to colleagues, and how to speak up as a bystander — and have senior leaders attend the training sessions.
  • Put in proportional consequences, so that low-grade instances can be handled with conversations instead of firings or legal action.

Ms. Pao, now the chief diversity and inclusion partner at the Kapor Center, a research, advisory and investment group that tries to make the tech industry more diverse, says she is pessimistic that company cultures will change unless it starts at the very top. "If you could fix the problem, then everybody could move on and thrive," she said. "But often it's not just the one bad player, so you may want to get out of the culture."