Why do so many women wait to come forward?
In October, Donald Trump’s senior campaign adviser, A.J. Delgato, told MSNBC that the women accusing the now president-elect of past assault and harassment couldn’t possible telling the truth because “these allegations are decade old. If somebody actually did that,,, any reasonable woman would have come forward and said something.” The same why didn’t you say something-earlier question has been asked during almost every headline-making sexual-harassment scandal. Earlier this year it was lobbed at former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson when she complained about her then-boss, Rodger Ailes. Paula Jones got it in 1994 about Bill Clinton.
Veiled character attacks aside, many women do, quite reasonably, assume they would come forward immediately if they were in that situation, says Louise Fitzgerald, professor emerita of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, who specializes in the psychological effects of sexual harassment, “But that’s not what happens.” She says.
In a landmark study published in 2001 in the Journal of Social Issues, psychologist Julie Woodzicka and Marianne LaFrance interviewed 197 women about what they would do if they were confronted with inappropriate or aggressive sexual provocation in a professional setting. The women said that they would get angry and refuse to put up with it. But when Woodzicka and LaFrance subjected 50 of the women to inappropriate comments in what they believed were real job interviews—the interviewer asked if they wore bras to work, if they felt they were sexually desirable—every woman, without exception sat through the interview and answered the questions. None reported the interviewer’s behavior. Later, they said they hadn’t been angry. What they’d felt was fear.
“We really didn’t think the difference between their assumptions and their behavior would be so stark,” says LaFrance, a professor at Yale. “My first response as a scientist was, “Wow, this data is so great!’ my second thought was, ‘Oh God, this is awful for women.’ ‘’
When the women were being harassed, their most common reaction was to smile. It was this fake placeholder smile that they plastered on their faces, “says Woodzicka, a professor at Washington and Lee University, “and then just left there for the duration of the job interview.”
It’s like they were literally grinning and bearing it,” LaFrance says. In a follow-up study published in 2004, the psychologist showed the footage of women’s interviews to men and women and found that men were most likely to misread the smiles as genuine.
Woodzicka and LaFrance studied only in-the-moment reactions, however. After the incidents, Fitzgerald explains, rational considerations about whether and how to respond come into play. A woman who’s been harassed might consider who did it and how important that person is to the company. Will she be believed? Can she afford to lose her job or burn a professional bridge?
Quitting is not an option for people who are living paycheck to paycheck. But Fitzgerald says highly paid women with prestigious careers also put up with harassment, because “the higher you go up the employment ladder, the more difficult it is to find a job to replace the one you’re leaving.”
During Anita Hill’s testimony before the US Senate Judiciary Committee about the sexualized atmosphere she experienced while working for Clarence Thomas in the 1980’s, she was criticized for having kept in touch with him and for following him across two jobs (one ironically, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). You might “You might need to call on this person for references,” says Hill, now a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University. “Unless you’re willing to explain to future employers why you’re not speaking to this person, there is an understanding that if this is someone you worked for, someone that holds a key to your future in his hands, you’re going to have to maintain some kind of relationship.
“I like to believe that now we understand these kind of situations better,” she adds. “But people should remember that even if it takes them years, or they don’t come forward at all, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.
I got the information for this post from Bloomberg Business Week Nov. issue 2016