Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby and Donald Trump all reportedly harassed and preyed on women for years, abusing their power with impunity from the distant heights of fortune and fame. Yet these are just a few of the more high profile cases of men who were eventually caught in the act. Research suggests that between 30-50% of women report being sexually harassed at work, and only a small percentage of women who experience it report it.
For ages, women have had to endure such abuse from men in authority. It comes in many types: from the slights of sexual innuendo to the horrors of molestation and worse. Some acts are blatantly illegal, while others are less clearly so. Mainstream American culture seems to ebb and flow in its recognition, tolerance and encouragement of the misogynistic norms that increase the likelihood of such acts. Today, in particular, it feels like anything goes.
When women in the workplace are put in these positions, most experience a dilemma. Particularly if they are in need of a job, new at work, highly dependent on a position, or just wishing to get along or make a good impression, they face an often impossible choice. Do they ignore it, laugh it off, and go along to get along? Or do they resist and report it? These choices often have serious consequences.
Of course, sexual harassment is unprofessional, immoral and illegal and shouldn’t be tolerated. But given that it is – in far too many places – How can a woman (or male target) respond? Most likely, the target of the abuse will feel enraged, betrayed and wanting to lash out, or possibly traumatized and unable to speak. These are natural and fitting responses. So here is a strategy for responding that friends, co-workers, or others who offer support should be mindful of when counseling the target.
I call it Strategic Rebellion. This is a deliberate choice to rebel strategically against such advances in a manner that minimizes harm to the abused while maintaining a maximum sense of integrity. It involves learning how to resist, systematically and sequentially, by turning up the heat on those in positions of authority. The following tactics are gleaned from the literature on psychology and community activism, and are presented here in a sequence from low- to high-risk: from persuasion to resistance to mobilizing for power. Of course, they may all be useful and necessary when fighting this fight, but they are presented here in a sequence from lower to higher risk.
1. Persuasion Tactic #1: Appeal to the harasser’s self-interests. If the offense is a first encounter of this nature with them, it is possible that they are unaware of the implications of what they are saying or doing. So exploring their actions, trying to get some sense of their intent, and then discussing it in terms of the potential costs and implications for them, is one way to test the waters. This signals your discomfort and gives them a way to quietly withdraw without losing much face. If they don’t, move onto #2.
2. Persuasion Tactic #2: Appeal to the harasser’s morals. Most of us like to believe that we are essentially decent people. We are uncomfortable with the dissonance we feel when we become aware of the fact that our behavior is inconsistent with our better selves. Emphasizing the more fair, decent, and humane aspects of people, particularly in the context of an encounter where they may be evidencing more coarse or despicable intentions or behaviors, can help to highlight this gap and increase their dissonance. Ideally, this shames them sufficiently to shut down the behavior. If not…
3. Resistance Tactic #1: Just say no. If 1 and 2 don’t work, then it is best to simply, quietly refuse. Since what is happening is unethical, immoral and likely illegal, then your straightforward refusal may be enough to worry or intimidate them into backing off and reconsidering their actions. If not…
4. Resistance Tactic #2: Say no louder. When simply refusing doesn’t work, it’s time to turn the volume up by bringing in others. This can mean speaking with friends and colleagues and getting their advice and support. If this is not possible without also putting them in jeopardy then it might be time to blow the inside whistle. This could entail speaking to the harasser’s supervisor, or if the behavior involves the supervisor as well, speaking to that person’s superiors, an ombudsperson or with human resources. Because you might be met with silence or collusion by hirer ups, you will want to inform as many people inside the organization as possible who are paid to prevent and mitigate sexual harassment.
5. Resistance Tactic #3: Broadcast no convincingly. When tactics 1–4 don’t work, it is time to consider blowing the outside whistle. This is a big decision and is likely to have serious consequences for you and for others. Researchers have found that whistle-blowers are more likely to be effective if they: have high credibility within the organization, forgo anonymity and identify themselves at the outset of the proceedings, if the organization is not highly dependent on the wrongs being enacted, and if the evidence of the wrongdoing is convincing and clearly illegal. While broadcasting no, it is also very important to…
6. Power Tactic #1: Gather your own power. This is an explicit attempt to change the power dynamic between you and your abuser by enhancing or consolidating your own power. First, it is particularly important to take good care of yourself physically and emotionally during this time, as the stress and uncertainty of it will take its toll. Second, study up on the rules and regulations of your workplace, so that you have full knowledge of your rights and privileges established by the rules — as well as the constraints and limitations on the harasser’s behavior—so that you can leverage them when necessary. Finally, hold strongly to your own self-concept of goodness and decency and refuse to submit to the derogatory self-image that others may try to impose on you. In other words, try to maintain and bolster your own physical, procedural, and psychological power, particularly under these circumstances.
7. Power Tactic #2: Gather your friends and documents. Another tactic is to change the power dynamic at work by gathering and strengthening alliances. This might mean getting confirmation of the abuse from others, or organizing several people (including male allies) from a department to go above the abuser together to express your concerns. Or it could involve something more elaborate such as when workers from Walmart organized labor demonstrations and strikes in twenty-eight stores across twelve states to protest the company’s retaliation against workers who spoke out against harassment. Ideally, victims of workplace sexual harassment should also document, document, document (dates, locations, statements, actions by perpetrator, conversations with insiders, etc.) and be able to point to the fact that they spoke to them soon after the harassment took place.
8. Power Tactic #3: Practice Jujitsu. The great community activist Saul Alinsky once wrote, “Since the Haves publicly pose as the custodians of responsibility, morality, law and justice (which are frequently strangers to each other), they can be constantly pushed to live up to their own book of morality and regulations.” In other words, sometimes the harassed can use the rules, policies, and power of the harasser to silence them. For instance, there are many instances of women naming and shaming abusive leaders – priests, rabbis, politicians and CEOs – publically and effectively into submission. This now constitutes active noncooperation, which may very well backfire unless it is leveled carefully. But the reputations and the legitimacy of abusers becomes fair game at some point, particularly as a later resort.
9. Power Tactic #4: Reduce the organization’s power through organized noncooperation. Ultimately, organizations are responsible for their employees’ actions, no matter how high up they sit. Noncooperation against the organization is a form of nonviolent protest or resistance that can be effective. But to be done well, it must be conducted strategically. Tactics of noncooperation are very likely to backfire unless a full strategy has been developed and is implemented with an eye to adaptation. Our history texts are full of examples in which nonviolent protests resulted in catastrophes for the protestors. But the same texts also feature brilliant illustrations of protests and social movements that were greatly advanced through the use of noncooperation.
10. Power Tactic #5: Take their power. If all else fails, it may be time for direct legal action. This tactic, obviously, is the most costly. But it should always be considered as a viable option; a backup plan should all else fail. At this stage, it may make sense to hire your own legal team separate from the legal department internal to the organization. Hiring an outside legal team is often the only way to put the victim on more equal footing with a powerful male perpetrator who is valued by the organization.
Sexual harassment is revolting and ideally should be met with resistance. The major onus to rid our society of such acts falls squarely those of us who contribute in ways big and small to a hostile, sexist, misogynistic culture. However, it can also be resisted directly by those targeted in a manner that is both effective and has the fewest negative consequences for the abused.
Peter T. Coleman, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, Director of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and author of Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement (2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). http://www.makingconflictwork.com/