Spring 2014 wasn’t exactly a banner period for women and sexual harassment and assault.
In mid-May, the New York Times reported that a Fort Hood, Texas, Army sergeant who was a sexual assault prevention and response coordinator was under investigation for managing a prostitution ring. New York magazine published a cover story of celebrity photographer Terry Richards, recounting a long history of sexual harassment allegations. The cover line questioned, "Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?" as if one excluded the other.
Last week, American Apparel’s board of directors fired founder and CEO Dov Charney reportedly due to a misuse of company funds and because he allegedly allowed an employee to post online nude photos of a woman who had sued Charney, along with a slew of other allegations of sexual misconduct.
In the media, after claiming that sexual assault victims receive "privileged status" in one of his recent columns, George Will was dropped from exactly one newspaper.
Sexual harassment affects both men and women, but data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) shows more than 83% of cases are brought by women in 2011 (the latest year data is available).
"I see many cases of serious sexual harassment where the victim can’t get any relief because society hasn’t deemed it a serious problem," says workplace discrimination expert Patricia G. Barnes, Esq., author of Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees, and Psychopaths at the Workplace.
While people are dramatically more aware of sexual harassment than they were a few decades ago, Barnes says it’s still too prevalent. Women who seek redress through the Equal EEOC or lawsuits face long, drawn-out proceedings that often don’t end in their favor.
The reluctance to take action often comes down to simple math, she adds. A company may decide its action based on whether it’s a bigger financial risk to lose a key person or to settle a few sexual harassment claims. When the individual starts to cost the company too much money, then there’s new incentive to take action.
There are many reasons why women don’t report the behavior. Employment attorney James J. Collum says that abusers often target women who have certain traits or disadvantages. They may be inexperienced employees or single mothers who depend on a paycheck. Others may seek out timid personality types who have a hard time standing up for themselves.
"[Harassers] look for people who are in less of a position of power in credibility or economic stability," he says.
But Barnes says executive women are not immune. She has represented management-level women who experienced harassment from subordinates. These women are concerned about retaliation from peers and the career or reputation impact that reporting sexual harassment might have, including office gossip and difficulty finding a new job if prospective employers find out about the claim.
In addition, Berkeley, California, workplace harassment and employment-discrimination consultant Amy Oppenheimer says that some harassers actually have very low self-esteem and don’t believe they’re being coercive because they don’t see themselves having power. And sometimes women don’t report because they think "everyone already knows" and action hasn’t been taken. She adds that’s often not the case.
"There’s the rumor mill and people at a certain level who know about it, but they don’t say anything to people who can do something about it because they’re afraid of retaliation," she says.
There may also be conditioning issues at play. A 2011 study by the American Association of University Women found that 50% of middle and high school students were sexually harassed, but girls were more likely than boys to be harassed by a significant margin (56% vs. 40%). Only 12% of girls reported the harassment.
In addition, Barnes says that a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Vance v. Ball State University et al made it a bit more difficult to prove sexual harassment in the workplace. The decision narrowly redefined the term "supervisor" to someone who has the ability to hire and fire—so, the person who is harassing you might not be considered your supervisor, even if you report to him or her. It’s all a little "inside baseball," but that kind of narrow definition can complicate a lawsuit, she says.
Write it down. As soon as possible, write down the incident in as much detail as possible, Oppenheimer counsels. Leave out the emotion or judgment. Just write the facts, dates, times, and any witnesses to the event. Keep this document in a safe place outside of the office.
Check your company policies. Most employee manuals will have procedures for reporting harassment. Follow them as closely as possible, Barnes says. However, if you feel as though reporting the incident to the person indicated is going to be a problem—for example, if you’re supposed to report to your supervisor when he is the one harassing you—find a senior ally in the company who can help you get your message to the right people, she says.
Contact the EEOC. You typically have 45 days from the event to seek help and advice from an EEOC counselor. You can find out more information about doing so and the types of assistance available here.
Seek counsel. Oppenheimer says that it might be a good idea to find an employment law attorney even if you don’t plan on filing a lawsuit. Investing in such counsel might help you understand the ways in which the law is on your side and help coach you in your actions and language to help find a resolution, if possible, she says.