Why You Shouldn't Report Sexual Harassment

Last Updated May 23, 2011 3:08 PM EDT

Opinion:

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn's conduct with women have come to the forefront in the debate over sexual harassment. Of course, sexual harassment is ubiquitous. It is so prevalent on the job that girls can expect to encounter workplace harassment the first summer they work during high school. And it continues for a long time.

As teachers and parents, most of us spend a lot of time making sure girls know what harassment looks like. What's okay and what's not okay when it comes to dealing with boys and men. If he tells you that you look nice one day or pats you on the back, that's okay but if he's ogling your breasts constantly or trying to give you a back rub, that's not.

Just because you identify it, though, doesn't mean you should report it. In fact, smart women don't file formal complaints against ordinary harassment. They either ignore it or handle it on their own.

1. The laws don't work.
The U.S. has a clear legal definition of sexual harassment. But the definition is not so important because the laws proscribe what a company needs to do in order to show the company does not promote harassment in the workplace. Once the company takes those measures, it's hard to win a case against the employer, no matter what the guy did initially. This means, for one thing, a company does not need to care for the woman's feelings or the legal definition of harassment.

Another thing is that it's very easy for the company to fire a woman who complains. The legal protections are murky and ineffective. Yes, sometimes women win big awards or men lose their jobs (See Senator Bob Packwood), but in a series of interviews I did with labor lawyers who represent women plaintiffs, the lawyers agreed that women are more likely to get fired for complaining and lose their case in court.

2. Harassment is an unfortunate part of climbing the ladder.
For sure, not all men engage in harassment. But the men who do self-select by seeking powerful positions in society. The same trait that makes men want power is the trait that makes men think it's okay to use that power in a male/female dynamic. But here's something that happens today: women who earn little money and have no career are more likely to feel they have nothing to lose if they report harassment. (Yes, they may not be able to afford to lose their paycheck, but it's easier for them to replace the job they have with another job that pays the same amount.) So they are dangerous to harass. Whereas women who have a big career have a lot to lose by reporting harassment, so they put up with it.

This is why, for example, Strauss-Kahn was sent to jail by a maid, but once he was there, many women with positions at the IMF came forward to complain as well. By the time the guy is in jail, there is much less risk of retribution. The bottom line for a woman, though, is that if you want to have a career of increasing power, you are going to have to keep quiet about the harassment.

4. International norms are ridiculous.
The laws that govern sexual harassment outside of the US are a joke. France is generally accepting of extramarital affairs, and sexual transgressions are seen as personal, not public. The IMF, as an example of a typical office full of highly educated people outside the US, has very lenient rules when it comes to harassment - to the point where women at the IMF dress carefully to keep men from bugging them. (For those of you who want below-the-knee skirts at work, please note that this is the same analysis to support the wearing of a Burka: men can't control themselves so women need to cover up.)

Once you become aware of the widespread tolerance for harassment throughout the world, it becomes clear that you will have to put up with it as a form of cultural diversity. If you want to be good at working with a wide range of people, you need to be good at brushing off harassment.

5. Know the difference between sexual assault and harassment.
Harassment is often something the guy doesn't even notice. A study of from the American Association of University Women found that in more than half the cases, women thought men were harassing them and the men had no idea. So often, women can just tell the guy, I don't like that. And it works. Other times, women say I don't like that, and the guy keeps doing it. At that point, the woman probably has to take action (side note: here's a good way to leverage sexual harassment to your benefit).

There is a big difference between harassment and sexual assault. Strauss-Kahn is accused of attempted rape. This is in another legal domain, and the laws are stronger, and women should report rape. I'm glad that maid at the Sofitel did.

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