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The culture of silence that allows harassment in the workplace to continue


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There were three barriers that victims encountered when they started to speak about experiences of sex-based harassment: First, they were told they had to prove that their experience was uncommon and significant; second, they were expected to “trust the system” to resolve their issues; and third, they faced severe consequences, such as a damaged reputation, when they challenged the system

The #MeToo movement has led to women the world over coming forward with stories of harassment. This issue is not confined to a single company or industry. It is an endemic problem which spreads far beyond the cases of sexual abuse that hit the headlines sporadically.

In my research, I have spoken to women in many industries who have suffered some form of sex-based harassment in the workplace – from sectors that are much more male-dominated like engineering to more supposedly “enlightened” environments such as academia.

Sex-based harassment includes sexual harassment, but also encompasses other forms of behaviour that demean or humiliate someone on the basis of their sex, such as sexist remarks, harassment during pregnancy and post birth and gender-based bullying.

When studying the careers of British women engineers with Laurie Cohen from the University of Nottingham and Joanne Duberley from the University of Birmingham, we found that women in this industry regularly encountered harassment on the basis of their sex.

For example, Jen*, a junior engineer, described her frustration that some of her male colleagues saw her first and foremost as a potential date:

“I had a lot of men casually asking me out. They would say: ‘Could you help me with this? And by the way, shall we go for a drink?’ I got annoyed that they assumed that because I was a girl I was up for grabs, even though I was at work.”

One of her colleagues, Hillary, said she walked a fine line when talking to male co-workers:

“If you’re too friendly they might see that as flirting. If you’re not friendly then you’re a bitch. It’s very difficult, when I thought I was just being friendly I heard I was being accused of being flirty.”

The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have not only thrust the issue of this kind of harassment into public consciousness, they have also highlighted how victims are all too often silenced about their experiences.

Many people are coming forward with incidents that happened years ago. My research, talking with academics who’ve experienced harassment gives some insight into why this is the case. It highlights how cultures of silence exist – it’s rarely the result of one individual’s actions.



Surprising results

I worked with Ajnesh Prasad at Royal Roads University, to understand how silencing occurs. The focus was on academia – an industry which witnessed a surge of reported cases of sex-based harassment especially between the years 2014-16.

In 2015-16 I interviewed 31 academics employed in business schools at nine universities in the UK. Interviewees described a plethora of incidents that they or others they knew had experienced, including sexist remarks, harassment during pregnancy and after giving birth, gender-based bullying, and sexually motivated advances. Contrary to what I expected, all interviewees said that they shared their experiences with line managers, HR personnel and professional colleagues to make sense of and to seek redress for what happened. Then they described how they were persuaded to drop the issue and move on.

There were three barriers that victims encountered when they started to speak about experiences of sex-based harassment: First, they were told they had to prove that their experience was uncommon and significant; second, they were expected to “trust the system” to resolve their issues; and third, they faced severe consequences, such as a damaged reputation, when they challenged the system.



Proving an experience to be rare and significant

Victims were often told that their experiences didn’t amount to harassment — that they were common and insignificant — and that if they wanted to file a formal complaint, they’d need to show otherwise. One assistant professor we talked to, Alaina, explained how her line manager responded to her complaint about a senior colleague’s unwanted advances:

“He was super nice in the beginning, but then he always wanted to do work in the evening over a drink. I was fine with this, but he kept complimenting me about the way I look, which made me quite uncomfortable. People were looking at us as if we were a couple. He was not bothered by it — it was good for his ego, a young woman on the side. My head of department was the only person I trusted, so I told him. He listened very carefully and laughed it off, saying that these kinds of things happen all the time, I shouldn’t take it so seriously. After all, this person has not forced himself onto me, and I agreed to go to all the places he invited me to. And so on. I ended up feeling embarrassed… He is the head of department; he should know what he is talking about, I guess. I don’t know what to do.”

By suggesting that Alaina’s experience wasn’t serious, her manager positioned her as an individual who had misinterpreted her circumstances. He also hinted that she may have “encouraged” her perpetrator because she had agreed to meet him in various places, making her feel partially responsible for her fate and invalidating the importance of her claim.

As a result, Alaina felt deeply embarrassed. While she did not completely buy her manager’s verdict, his seniority in the organisation somewhat legitimised his opinion — she felt that she had no case to challenge the system. Alaina reluctantly chose to stay silent.



Trusting the system to resolve issues

When women complained to HR, they were often urged to be patient and allow the issue to be quietly resolved. Senior researcher Neev explained what happened when she complained about a senior colleague who harassed her:

“I wasn’t included in many things — there were several areas of work that I was stronger in than all of my group members, but I wasn’t asked to be involved. It was clearly a boys’ club. I felt that I was treated differently to everyone else in our group, and there was aggression too when I tried to complain about things. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I went to HR. They told me to calm down and said that they will look into things. They came back to me almost immediately and said that people speak very highly about this person. But then they were sympathetic about how I felt, they had talked to this manager, and they were very willing to help me to better integrate into my team. And that was it. In their view my problem was solved, and they hinted that I should not talk about these things to anyone because these are very confidential issues. They made me feel like an overly dramatic person and they then offered to help me to deal with my issues. That manager is now nice to me — but it is patronising; it does not change what he did. I guess they would have to talk with him. I think I deserve some justice for what I went through. But after my experience with HR, I am confused. I feel that I have a point which has not been recognised, but they seem to think it has been solved. I feel really low and I don’t talk to anyone in the organisation much unless I really have to.”

The HR officers attempted to “solve” Neev’s issue by asking her perpetrator to be nice to her. As far as they were concerned, Neev was offered support and her issue was solved. But Neev felt extremely patronised and embarrassed for being seen as a “melodramatic” individual. She believed that she still wasn’t being treated fairly, and HR’s interest in archiving her complaint left her confused.



Suffering consequences after challenging the system

The women we talked to were also advised by well-meaning colleagues to not voice their discontent, because of career repercussions and social isolation that might ensue. Abbey told us how many people cautioned her against complaining about a senior colleague who harassed her:

“He made my life miserable during maternity leave, hinting that I strategically chose to have children during the grant. But my team members were like, ‘Even if you leave the organisation, getting the wrong person on your bad side can effectively ruin your career, especially if it’s someone in your area. So just keep quiet. You don’t want to be known as a parasite.’ Of course I don’t want to be known as a parasite. So I am scared to open my mouth, to be honest, although I really want to.”

Abbey’s maternity leave was not respected, but her close colleagues insisted that she should not raise the issue any further, because bringing it up would position her as a “troublemaker” and negatively affect her career. This instilled a sense of fear that led Abbey to stay silent.

So women were often told their experiences didn’t amount to harassment, that such behaviour was common and insignificant, and that they needed to prove otherwise if they wanted to file a formal complaint. When women did complain, they reported being urged to be patient and allow the issue to be resolved quietly. While the organisation tried to make sure it didn’t happen again, this was played down in front of the victim to avoid any blame towards the organisation or its procedures. At the same time, victims were warned they could be branded a “troublemaker” if they continued to raise their concerns. Marsha described how she was advised by well-meaning colleagues to not complain about unwanted sexual attention:

“Their view was that, if this gets out, I would be the girl who accuses men of coming onto her.”

Thus sex-based harassment is not just the result of one individual’s actions. In each of the cases we encountered, managers, HR personnel, and ordinary colleagues were complicit in silencing victims.

This not only created a safe haven for perpetrators, who were able to avoid punishment. But victims were left feeling confused and unsupported, often leading to disengagement from work and withdrawal from the social fabric of the organisation.



Breaking the silence

To end these damaging effects of silencing, it is not only important to have channels for people to report harassment, it is also crucial to ensure that victims feel heard, their concerns validated, and their complaints taken seriously.

They should be assured that action will be taken to hold culprits accountable and to prevent such cases from happening again. If people believe that injustice is covered up by the organisation, this can negatively affect their commitment and motivation.

People should also reflect on how they respond to colleagues’ concerns and know that their actions have repercussions. By encouraging colleagues to remain silent, they help to create a culture of harassment that means for every damning headline, there are many more cases that go unreported.



*All names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees mentioned.


(This article is republished from The Conversation and the Harvard Business Review.)

[The writer is Associate Professor at Warwick Business School, University of Warwick. She holds two BSc degrees from the London School of Economics (LSE) UK and Lancaster University UK, an MSc from LSE and a PhD from Loughborough University UK. Dulini researches on highly skilled individuals’ experiences of work and career focusing on understanding barriers, enablers and mechanisms of navigation with the aim of improving people’s experiences in the workplace. Dulini’s work has been published in leading organisation and management journals and is cited regularly in the media.]


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