Sexual harassment allegations dominate the news media every time an individual in a position of power is accused of engaging in conduct unbecoming. Prominent positions come with high expectations and standards of conduct. When the tone at the top falls flat, it sets a poor example for others to follow, because political leaders and public figures are role models and mentors.
Most cases of sexual harassment are revealed by the victims ... but usually not right away. Particularly when the perpetrator is in a position of power, delayed disclosure is closer to the rule than the exception. Victims suffer in silence for years, often having to continue to work with (or for) the perpetrators, because they are reluctant to disrupt their professional network by bringing “drama” into the workplace, risk retaliation, or have concerns about not being believed or taken seriously.
Yet sometimes victim credibility is not an issue because the harassing conduct occurs in front of others — who say nothing. Why not? Because in many settings, despite observation and even discomfort upon witnessing sexually harassing behavior, silence is maintained due to a culture of complacency.
Culture of Complacency
M. Sandy Hershcovis et al. in “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” (2021) examined the dynamic of network silence in the wake of sexual harassment. In their conceptual review, they discuss the concept of network silence around sexual harassment, theorizing that “social network compositions and belief systems can promote network silence.”
They specifically discuss how network composition and belief systems combine to facilitate network silence in the face of sexual harassment. They further explain that relevant belief systems “elevate harassers and men to central positions within networks, who in turn may promote problematic belief systems, creating a mutually reinforcing dynamic.”
How does this structural network behavior impact victims? Hershcovis et al. suggest that network silence facilitates ongoing sexual harassment through unaccountability and lack of consequences for perpetrators, as well as decreased support for victims, which contributes to victims’ decision to remain silent. They recognize that together, these dynamics generate a culture of sexual harassment.
Spotlight on the Social Network
Once they come forward, many sexual harassment victims feel like they are the ones in the scrutiny of the spotlight. But why should the responsibility to speak up fall solely upon the victim? Noting that it is time to re-examine the concept of silence surrounding sexual harassment, Hershcovis et al. suggest that in contrast to previous research, which focused on the victim as the party who should come forward, we should shift the focus to the broader social network within which sexual harassment occurs.
This would increase responsibility for silence from victims to social network members, including witnesses and authority figures, and also would emphasize how silence is generated socially through supportive network elements.
Accordingly, Hershcovis et al. propose that instead of focusing solely on empowering victims to find their voice, organizations should also combat sexual harassment by intervening within the social forces that create network silence.
Corporate Combat of an Invisible Epidemic
By focusing on methods of improving education and workplace accountability through measures to address both victims and surrounding staff, leaders, and broader social networks, we can find new ways to empower both victims and witnesses of sexual harassment to reveal inappropriate behavior sooner rather than later. This increased transparency and accountability will make the workplace a safe, healthy, respectful environment for everyone.
This column was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick, JD, MDiv, PhD, is an award-winning career trial attorney and media commentator. She is host of "Live with Dr. Wendy" on KCBQ, and a daily guest on other media outlets, delivering a lively mix of flash, substance and style. Her over 4,500 media appearances include these major news outlets: CNN, Fox News Channel, HLN, FOX Business Network and weekly appearances on Newsmax. She is author of ''Red Flags'' (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of The New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House, revision). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, participates as a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus, and plays the electric violin professionally with a rock band. Read Dr. Wendy L. Patrick's Reports — More Here.
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