Mendoza School of Business

Why Women Tend to Let Sexual Harassment Pass

Published: November 7, 2012 / Author: Jessica Firger

Women judge others harshly for not standing up to sexual harassment, says a new study. That is, unless the woman has experienced sexual harassment herself.

Jan Kerr was 18 when she entered the legal profession. While the job was intellectually rigorous, personnel relations were challenging: Her boss never hesitated to offer feedback on her looks, she says.

“‘What are those lumps on your chest?'” she recalls him saying. Kerr consistently ignored his lewd comments, never reporting him or speaking up for herself.

“That was him just being smart at the time with his other work colleagues,” says the now 52-year-old of the repeated harassment that occurred more than three decades ago.

Kerr’s reaction is not uncommon, and a recent study published in the journal Organization Science says women are troubled by the lack of reporting. Peers who were aware of a colleague being harassed — but who said they had not been harassed themselves — believed they’d be more confrontational if placed in the same scenario. However, women who had experienced sexual harassment expressed more understanding and less judgment of victims who didn’t report incidents.

“Why do we condemn people who don’t stand up?” asks Ann Tenbrunsel, coauthor of the paper and professor of business ethics at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “We all think we’d be more aggressive in the same situation, and we condemn people who are not.”

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Topics: Mendoza