Why don’t women “just” report sexual harassment

There’s been lots of talk over the last few weeks about sexual harassment; with surprise from some quarters that sexual harassment isn’t reported more easily or frequently or in a more timely manner.

I have investigated many complaints which relate to alleged incidents that occurred either months or years earlier. One of the first things that the employing body almost always says is  – but why didn’t they “just” report it at the time?

There’s an example that will probably always stick with me. A young female who said “I didn’t report it because I thought that no one would believe me over him.” She only reported if after she had left the business and there was no longer a threat to her ongoing employment.

I have heard this so many times. Why would they believe a young woman over an older “respected” man. And what happens after the complaint? If the matter is brushed aside – that woman still needs to work in the workplace with the man, who rarely responds well to said complaint. It’s why all too often it’s the woman who leaves the workplace after a complaint. Either voluntarily because it’s just “easier” or because they are pushed, because it’s all become too “awkward”.

Take too the example of Brittany Higgins, who alleges she was raped in her employer’s office a number of years ago. She didn’t report this to the police until recent times because she felt it was an either/or situation. Keep your job or report the alleged crime.

It’s been instructive too reading the many many many responses to the allegations made by a now deceased woman over a rape. Again the questions – why didn’t she raise it earlier? Why didn’t she make a complaint to the police? And then the judgements .. because she didn’t report it in a timely manner (whatever that is) – she must be lying/confused/mentally unwell/looking to destroy an innocent man and his career.. and on it goes.

This isn’t about presumption of innocence. It’s not about rule of law. If only it was that simple.

It’s about the society we live in, where (mainly) women feel that it’s just not that easy to report allegations of sexual harassment or assault. And if they do, the experience, process and judgement that comes with reporting it simply adds to the trauma.

In part it’s about power. And the reality that for many women, the power dynamic with men is not in their favour.

Whether that’s because in the he said/she said equation – there seems to be a tendency to want to protect the alleged perpetuators at all costs and believe in their innocence even in the face of damning evidence. In a recent press conference, the undertone to that seemed to be – if you don’t believe me and my professed innocence, this too could happen to you. So let’s hang on to innocent until proven guilty – which by corollary means, the person making the allegations is not telling the truth because it’s not possible for both to be true.

Perhaps it is the process itself – which can range from intrusive through to life changingly traumatic.

Maybe it’s the explanations we like to give for why it might have happened (if we get to the point of accepting that it did indeed happen): well she was drunk.. Did you see the way she was dressed? Look at how she behaved – she was flirtatious and liked to have a bit of a joke with the boys, so what did you expect? It was a long time ago, times were different..It’s just boys being boys. Everyone is so PC now, why can’t she take it as a compliment or a bit of a joke??

Anything to minimise the accountability on the perpetrator.

I have been having a bit of a rant this week about the times we find ourselves. A male friend reached out via text and asked what else can we do? How do we make it easier for women to report things? We can’t stop the monsters, so how to we fix the rest of the system?

I replied to him that I think men are the key to this. For too long it’s been up to the women who find themselves in these situations to manage themselves, manage the situation, manage the consequences, manage society’s expectations and views of how they found themselves in the situation, and the impact the complaint has had on the alleged perpetrator.

This sort of behaviour rarely goes from 0-100 overnight. It starts small. With the innocuous jokes. With the touching and the comments.

To my friend who asked – here’s where I see that the men in our society are so critical.

Men see the jokes. They see the inappropriate touching. Many times they too are cringing inside. And yet – they (often) don’t do or say anything..

If the bystanders start calling out this behaviour from the beginning – it makes a difference. A big difference.

What else? Systems that support being able to report sexual harassment/assault. A reporting structure that supports everyone that is in the process. A reporting structure that takes things seriously, gets professional and evidence based advice on how to handle it. A structure and process that doesn’t just pay lip service to the issue.

Finally – that leadership that looks at their own behaviour. I recall one organisation where the biggest offender was the boss himself. The number of attempted conquests ran into double digits. The shadow of the leader looms large. Is any woman in that organisation going to think any complaint will be taken seriously?

I guess the issue is less about why woman don’t report it in a timely manner, and more that it’s a wonder that they ever report it at all.

Rant over. For now.



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