The slew of sexual harassment PR nightmares FOX News has faced this year — from Roger Ailes stepping down to Bill O'Reilly's $13 million settlements — may very well be newsworthy, but they're not uncommon. A 2015 survey reported that one in three women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
But of those women, only 29 percent reported it — and of that, only 15 percent felt that it was properly handled. Think about that: For every 100 women who are harassed, only four actually get a resolution to the problem.
Often, women are encouraged to take on the mantle of systemic change by standing up for ourselves. But the truth is, the stakes for a single person reporting sexual harassment are astronomically high.
Here are the reasons far too few of us speak out about harassment:
You're afraid that reporting it will jeopardize your career
Sometimes even the leak of a report can cause colleagues to doubt whether the incident sincerely happened or you just have hair trigger sensitivity. The fear is that if we make a fuss, we'll alienate our coworkers, get passed over for promotions, or worse, pushed out.
Susan Fowler's recent exposé of her time at Uber was a shocking insight into an all too common situation for women in tech. Her very first day on a new team, her boss propositioned her — and when she turned him down and reported it to HR, was told that her options were to stay on the team (and face a likely negative performance review) or change teams to avoid him (and sacrifice what was otherwise an ideal position). That's the problem: HR's job, first and foremost is to protect the company from litigation, and it's most powerful employees at all cost.
According to a study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the only way this can change is if the culture changes from the top down. Leadership has to set the example and take harassment training seriously. HR departments must be motivated by cultivating safe, productive, and open work cultures, rather than by putting reactionary, protective measures in place.
And employees must be thoroughly trained in what it means to be a bystander. Standing up for yourself in the face of a bully is difficult no matter what — but it's a hell of a lot easier with a strong team of supporters by your side.
You're afraid of ruining someone else's life
Your coworker Steve has as habit of putting his arm around your shoulder whenever he comes by to talk. It's not the end of the world, but you feel awkward and uncomfortable. You slip a note to HR, to see if they'd talk to him about it.
But, instead, your HR rep pulls you aside and says, "Are you crazy? Steve has two kids. If you file a report, he'll get fired. You'll ruin their lives. You need to let this go."
In another version of this story, you have to watch Steve pack up his desk, amidst glares from your coworkers, feeling like it's your fault.
When offices claim to have a zero tolerance policy, sometimes that translates to zero action or zero grace. What you really needed was for someone to talk to Steve about his behavior, not to be caught in the binary between getting him fired and staying silent.
If reporting an incident came with a proportionate response from management and HR — such as a quick, effective chat or a three strikes policy — more women would undoubtedly feel comfortable enough to step forward. But with the stakes so high, Steve's arm is often here to stay. And those "all or nothing" stakes are, frankly, unacceptable and oppressive.
You're afraid you're overreacting
You can't report a crime if you don't know it was committed. As the New York Times reports, 25 percent of women claim to have experienced sexual harassment — but when they are asked if they've experienced specific acts, aggressions, or propositions, the number doubles.
No one wants to be a victim, so sometimes it's easier to reject the notion that you've been harassed than to take on the label of victim and all that comes with it.
Properly labeling a comment as sexual harassment means acknowledging the iceberg of aggression and minimization below the exposed tip of that one specific action. And in a day where you're slammed, stressed, and juggling too much, it can often be easier to decide to let it roll off your back. What's the big deal, right? No one can make me a victim unless I take it that way, right?
Ignoring sexual harassment validates it in two ways: First, it tells the perpetrator that what he's doing (touching your back, making comments) is ok. Nope.
But the second, it can make you see yourself as a perk, an object. You begin to assess your own value according to your looks, your agreeableness, your ability to please. This can turn into a big old shame spiral.
You can't control your company's policies or behaviors. But you can find the courage to speak up when you're being abused. And it starts with voicing your fears. By taking this first step, you label your fears as merely fears and not unimpeachable truths, as society would lead you to believe.
You're afraid you're overreacting...but you're not.
You're afraid you'll ruin someone else's life...but you're not the one who committed a wrong.
You're afraid reporting it will jeopardize your career...but you deserve to work for a company that protects you.
And by acknowledging this, you help inch us collectively closer to a world in which women are valued, respected, and safe.