For Many Victims of Sexual Harassment, Fear of Retribution Leads to Silence

But businesses have options that allow them to be more responsive.

ByABC News
July 21, 2016, 2:29 PM
This undated photo shows sexual harassment at work.
This undated photo shows sexual harassment at work.
Getty Images

— -- The ongoing drama surrounding allegations of sexual harassment by Fox News' Roger Ailes brings the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace - especially against women - back in the spotlight.

Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, has denied allegations of harassment filed by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson.

A Fox News spokesperson told ABC News that “Gretchen Carlson never lodged a sexual harassment complaint with FOX News’ human resources or legal departments during her tenure with the network."

In response, Carlson's lawyer told The New York Times: "We are not going to try the case here. Yes, she made a complaint, and to whom and in what format, that's something that will come out at trial."

Data show that it’s quite common for cases of sex-based harassment to go unreported by women in the workplace.

Some background

A 2011 poll conducted for ABC News and The Washington Post showed that 25 percent of women said they had been sexually harassed at work while one in 10 men said they've been harassed.

A June 2016 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that "in many cases, targets of harassment do not complain or confront the harasser, although some certainly do.”

“The least common response of either men or women to harassment is to take some formal action - either to report the harassment internally or file a formal legal complaint,” the commission’s report said.

Only 6 percent to 13 percent of people who have been the targets of sexual harassment file a complaint, according to the government's report.

Why do so many people keep quiet?

According to the ABC News/Washington Post poll, four in 10 people who said they experienced harassment but did not report the incident said that was because they were either concerned about the consequences of making a report, or didn't think it would do any good.

“People realize that there may be consequences for coming forward even in these horrific incidents of sexual harassment,” Erin Prangley, associate director for public policy at the American Association of University Women, told ABC News. “Although illegal, we do hear of instances where the retaliation is real.”

Other advocates agreed that fear of retribution stopped people from standing up for themselves.

“People worry that if you complain to your employer about the harassment you’re experiencing you’ll face retaliation, that it will cause you to be ostracized at work, that it will cause you to lose professional opportunities that you might otherwise have had,” Emily Martin, vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, told ABC News.

Experts and advocates say that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits harassment and retaliation.

However, “it absolutely does happen,” noted Martin. “And people aren’t crazy to weigh the risks when they’re thinking about how to proceed.”

What can businesses do to empower victims?

“I want to be clear that employers have a legal obligation to maintain climates free from sex discrimination,” said Prangley. “Each workplace will be different, and some may have different challenges. In workplaces which are nontraditional for women…they may need to pay a little more attention to creating a climate free from sex discrimination.”

According to Martin, a key strategy for businesses that wish to create open and responsive environments is to have management communicate to workers that harassment claims will be taken seriously.

“The message from the top matters a lot,” she said. “Highest leadership should communicate - and communicate regularly - that they are committed to a harassment-free workplace and they are committed to promptly responding to and addressing any complaints about harassment.”

Martin emphasized that there should also be multiple ways for victims to lodge claims of harassment, so that if the allegations involve someone who would typically handle such claims, there are other paths for victims to have their complaints heard.

At least one expert feels the action Gretchen Carlson is taking now is not an isolated case.

“We can take some solace that there seems to be some positive cultural change in that women who are in positions of power - such as these newscasters - are coming forward,” said Prangley. “This might also be a function of women moving slowly but surely ascending power ladders, making the workplace climate more possible for women to come forward and expect public support.”