Not Just Weinstein: Why It's So Hard to Report Sexual Harassment


It’s not just Hollywood.

Sexual harassment is widespread in workplaces across the country, yet speaking up about it is not. The reasons are numerous: Some women fear reprisals, or feel ashamed. Victims, sociologists, lawyers and business experts say this all makes for a disheartening reality: It often feels like it’s just not worth it to speak up.

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While one in four women experience workplace harassment, up to 94 percent of victims don’t file a complaint, according to a report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Another study found that 75 percent of women who spoke out faced retaliation of some sort, like being punished for a minor infraction or being passed over for a promotion.

Michelle, a young woman who spoke to NBC News on the condition that only her first name be used because she did not want to jeopardize future employment opportunities, said she hesitated for months before deciding to report sexual harassment. Once she did, she said it felt like a “lose-lose situation.”

She was in her early 20s working at a Florida university when a co-worker who was more senior than her made a startling request: that she pose for topless photos.

Michelle said she was stunned but didn’t tell anyone besides her friends.

“I was thinking: ‘Should I report this? Who do I report it to?’ I don’t want to make a huge deal of this. I don’t want to make it worse,” she said.

A couple of months later, when she had accepted a new job in another state, she worked up the courage to tell human resources department at the school.

The department took her complaint seriously, but the experience was “embarrassing,” Michelle said, because her boss and the president of the college were told about the incident. Her HR representatives interviewed another male co-worker who had overheard the harassment, but ultimately deemed that there was a lack of evidence to pursue. Michelle later learned that her harasser wound up getting a promotion.

The experience left her feeling that women usually have more to lose by reporting harassment than to gain.

“We get either accused of lying about it or we have to deal with repercussions — slut-shaming, being blamed for it,” Michelle said. “So there’s really not much to gain by reporting it, other than your own personal sense of duty to yourself.”

Following explosive reports by The New York Times and The New Yorker, alleging decades of sexual misconduct by powerful producer Harvey Weinstein, questions arose over how, if the accusations were true, Hollywood didn’t put a stop to the behavior.

Related: Weinstein Says ‘I’m Not Doing OK’ Amid Sexual Misconduct Scandal

But research shows that sexual harassment across industries is so deeply ingrained, victims sometimes feel it’s easier to quit their jobs than try to change their workplace culture, said Dr. Heather McLaughlin, assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University.

“Sexual harassment is rarely isolated and often times reoccurring,” she said. “It’s difficult to try to change that.”

McLaughlin studies the economic effects of sexual harassment on working women and recently found that 80 percent of women who experienced severe sexual harassment changed jobs within two years — compared to half of other working women — and reported significantly greater financial stress two years later.

Her research also found that sexual harassment had implications for a woman’s career trajectory: Some were pushed into less lucrative careers in fields where they believed harassment or sexual discrimination would be less likely.

McLaughlin believes in some cases, men use sexual harassment as an “equalizer” against women in power.

“I think in those particular workplaces, women saw sexual harassment and other sexist or discriminatory acts as a way of bringing them down a peg when they had workplace authority over people,” she said.

Most workplaces define sexual harassment more broadly than how the law sees it, said Amy Oppenheimer, an attorney in Berkeley, California, who specializes in responding to and preventing workplace harassment.

Related: Could Harvey Weinstein Face Criminal Charges?

“To violate the law, you have to meet a certain bar,” like rape or sexual assault, she said. “To violate the workplace policy, it should be anything.”

Still, many employees are hesitant to report it.

“For the most part, women just want the behavior to stop initially,” Oppenheimer said. “But complaining gets it to another level. And it’s often somebody who you like in other contexts. It’s not all black and white: If it’s someone who you have to work with every day, it’s going to affect the relationship.”

Rachel Wells, 31, was working for a small New York media company a couple years ago when a new executive came on board. In their first one-on-one meeting, Wells said the man was “continuously staring at my chest.”

Despite being on a small team, Wells decided to report the executive’s behavior. When she approached her boss about the issue, her boss, she said, “kind of make a joke, like, ‘Thank God, I thought this was something serious.'”

Those kinds of responses are common and a large part of the problem, says Dr. Stefanie Johnson, an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado Boulder’s business school, who co-wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review exploring why women fail to report sexual harassment.

“If you do say something, people doubt you — both other women and definitely men,” she said. “It’s called second victimization. You’ve already been victimized, and you’re being re-victimized on something you already feel a lot of guilt in.”

With sexual harassment so prevalent, there becomes a “feeling that it’s the norm,” she added.

“Everyone is seeing this happening and no one is saying anything, so it must be OK. Otherwise, someone would stop it from happening,” she said.

Another problem for those who face sexual harassment is that the longer it goes on, the harder it becomes to stop: “You’ve not said anything at points A, B and C, then you’re going to turn around and say ‘No, that’s not OK’?” Johnson said.

Experts and victims praised the actresses speaking out against Weinstein. Michelle, the woman who reported her harasser after giving notice at her university job, said she was glad she spoke up, even though nothing came of it.

“I hope that all the women who are coming forward now makes the standard the new normal for them, and that standard should be that this is not OK,” she said. “When men are being inappropriate, say something, do something about it.”