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Sex-based harassment is pervasive in the workplace. Going beyond sexual harassment, sex-based harassment is behaviour that derogates, demeans, or otherwise humiliates someone on the basis of their sex. It is disproportionately experienced by women. One study of women in military and law found that nine out of 10 had experienced gender-based harassment at some point in their career. One reason why this harassment is so common is most victims stay silent about their experience.
Studies suggest that victims stay silent because they fear consequences at work or they feel that nothing will happen as a result of speaking up. What has been studied less though is how this silencing occurs. We set out to learn how female victims are silenced — who influences them and what exactly happens when they try to speak up.
We interviewed 31 early and mid-career academics employed in business schools at nine research-intensive universities in the UK. We asked women whether they, or others they knew, had experienced insulting, hostile, and degrading attitudes that made them feel bullied or excluded due to their gender. We encouraged them to describe events as vividly as possible and to reflect on how they and others they knew felt at each moment. Our interviewees described a plethora of incidents that either they or others they knew had experienced, including sexist remarks, harassment during pregnancy and after giving birth, gender-based bullying, and sexually motivated advances.
We asked whether or not they stayed silent about their experiences. Contrary to what we expected, all of our interviewees said 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 ultimately persuaded to move on and stop raising the issue. We noted three key barriers that victims encountered when they started to speak about experiences of sex-based harassment.
She said: "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 looked which made me quite uncomfortable. 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. After all, this person has not forced himself on to 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.
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. When women complained to HR, they were often urged to be patient and allow the issue to be quietly resolved. Senior researcher Neev explained to us what happened when she complained about a senior colleague who harassed her.
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. They told me to calm down and said that they will look into things. 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. 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.
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.
Abbey said: "He made my life miserable during maternity leave, hinting that I strategically chose to have children during the grant. So just keep quiet. So I am scared to open my mouth to be honest, although I really want to. This instilled a sense of fear that led Abbey to stay silent.
Each of these cases above shows how managers, HR, and ordinary colleagues can be complicit in silencing people who experience harassment, encouraging them to trust the system, and urging them to keep these experiences to themselves. This complicity not only provided a safe haven for perpetrators to operate, as they were spared from punishment, but it also made victims feel confused, unsupported, and, ultimately, compelled to acquiescence. As victims felt demoralised, they disengaged from work and from the social fabric of the workplace, behaviour that is known to hurt productivity, organisational commitment and profit.
See the original article plublisher at Harvard Business Review. For more articles like this download Core magazine here. Listen to our latest podcasts. Contact the University's Press Office. WBS on social media. WBS is a department of the University of Warwick. Core, showcasing our research. Visit the online store. X Loading Close Cancel.Woman want sex Warwick
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