The news has been dominated by women speaking out about their experiences as victims of other people’s despicable misconduct. We hear about it happening in Hollywood, Industry and Academia. Fortunate individuals who have not lived through such a horrible experience often ask:
“Why is she bringing this up now after so many years have passed?” Or, “Why didn’t she come forward, after she became successful and safe from retribution?”
Within these very questions lie some of the answers.
These questions cast doubt on a woman’s integrity and tend to blame the victim for allowing herself to be in a situation that helped set up the conditions for her to be abused.
Strong accusations of misconduct against people in power positions are met with the accused presumed “innocent until proven guilty." After all, how would someone so successful be allowed to be in a power position for such a long time if the individual was truly a scumbag? Surely, someone would have stopped them.
People do not want to believe the misconduct really happened. It’s gross and scary to think that in this day, in the greatest country in the world, educated people can still be sexist jerks that get away with deplorable behaviors in the workplace.
But therein lies the rub. Try proving it. Most of the crap that happens to women is behind closed doors or is deemed “micro-aggression." Without secretly recording the event, which can be considered illegal, it comes down to one person’s word against another. Unfortunately, the person with more power wins and for the victim who dares to speak up, even when the victim is proven right, she still loses -- mainly because no significant action to punish the perpetrator is ever taken, while the victim is expected to “get over it," move to a different position, leave the company or alter her routines to make “everyone comfortable." She is explicitly told to keep quiet, that the situation is “confidential” to protect the victim or she can be charged with retaliation.
Companies and institutions’ lack of accountability and lack of public action or any action helps any doubting outside observer justify that a woman’s claims “really couldn’t have happened or the company/institution/human resources would have done something about it.”
Furthermore, when the jerk remains employed and gets promoted or gets selected to be in advanced power positions, such as a tenure and promotion committee/faculty senate in an academic institution, or higher level management/leadership corporate positions, the power dynamic becomes overwhelming for the victim and provides the abuser with fertile new hunting grounds.
To begin to understand why women remain silent, a better question to ask is: “What does it feel like for a victim during these experiences?”
First, she can’t believe it is happening and her head is saying the same thing because it’s too horrible to think it is real. It’s like driving on a highway and then seeing a car driving in the wrong direction coming at you head on at high speed. You know it’s out of place and it takes a moment to register exactly what this unexpected odd event is, but it’s happening so fast you don’t know how to react.
Second, she is thinking, “What did I do or say to get myself in this situation to have someone think that this is ok?”, almost as if she is seeking to blame herself for the situation, like she had a choice, when she didn’t. The perpetrator then uses one or a combination of the following “prey strategies” to get submission:
1) Guilt her into believing she deserves to be treated like crap and is less than zero, or
2) Use intimidation and threatening language and forceful gestures, constantly reminding her of how it’s his word against hers to let her know that speaking up will only ruin her and not him, if she dares to defy him.
3) Make her feel like he is the victim who is offended by her calling him out on his behavior. Let her know she hurt his feelings by her assuming he “meant something more than it is” and “no harm” was intended. This makes her try to appease him with a softer apologetic response or graceful exit. Usually, she tries to “compromise” with him.
For instance, he doesn’t get the sex he wanted, but he gets her to massage him instead. The consequences of her not complying with his wishes don’t need to be stated explicitly.
If you walk away and dare speak of it to anyone, your career is over. There’s no reference letter, there’s no promotion, and your current job may “go away” due to downsizing or your contract will not be renewed. All very convenient for abusers and a safe exit strategy for employers who stick their head in the sand, fingers in their ears and pretend it’s not happening here.
Women being abused in the workplace is not limited to sexual misconduct. Gender and pay discrimination happen every day in every discipline and it is not a myth.
Some favorite attacks are to continually insult a woman’s credentials and diminish her, to convince her and her co-workers that she is worthless. This discrediting tactic attempts to put her on the defensive, so he can start draining her energy to resist him. Eventually, if he wears her down, she will be complacent and silent and remain subservient, so he can take credit for her ideas and work, while working her like a slave.
The thrust of this strategy is to distract a woman and have her use all her energy disproving his false and negative characterizations of her. This means she will push herself harder. She makes the mistake of thinking if she just does what he wants, he will be pacified and stop the abuse. There is no negotiation and there are no words to appease an abuser. They strive for a woman to accept subordination and complacency and when they feel they have it, they make sure she feels like no one would have her in order to maintain their control.
Insulting her intelligence to beat a woman down works very well to justify why a woman deserves to be severely underpaid. These abusers can’t stomach a woman being more successful than them. They see all she accomplishes and don’t know how she does it. And because they can’t do it, she must be falsifying or cheating her way through. He thinks, “A woman can’t really be smart, especially if she is good looking!”
In this case, abusers try to load a woman down with work, usually crappy mundane work, or give her tasks without any resources to guarantee her failure. This also ensures that she has no time to work on tasks that would advance her career or give her any recognition. He really must punish her for her success and make sure she receives no positive attention for her accomplishments.
Reporting misconduct does take courage. The first thing we do is outreach to the people that are supposed to be there to protect us. In a company, that is usually Human Resources (HR). Unfortunately, if the people that are supposed to protect us discount the event or blame the victim for the abuse, such as “Well, what did you expect, wearing that outfit?” or “Oh, he didn’t mean anything by that," it helps confirm that we are alone and somehow defective.
The worst HR response I have heard was from a woman reporting abuse being told, “Well, it’s his word against yours, so why don’t you just leave and find a new position because no one will hire you if you make the accusations and are considered a trouble maker.”
This may be the worst thing that can be said, but unfortunately, it’s the only honest response.
When a victim gets the courage to test the waters and approach the people we expect and hope will help, and the victim gets shot down, or ignored, most women will retreat.
Even a simple request for your salary history to HR sets off alarms that there is a trouble maker in the works, and they go on red alert. This convinces victims that HR really isn’t there to protect them. They are there to protect the company, and if scumbags are in the company, then the company must protect them, because the propaganda of “we don’t tolerate that here” will be proven to be false.
In the end, the victim is alone. Meanwhile, the abuser wins and grows stronger, ready for the next prey. Meanwhile, his last kill remains silent.
Next time in this blog: What happens to those women brave enough to stand up and fight.