Jan. 26, 2021

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Researchers describe network silence around sexual harassment, and the role of leaders in this silence.
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

High-profile sexual harassment cases have highlighted the problem of sexual harassment in organizations over the last years. The #MeToo movement enabled many people to share their own experiences with sexual harassment at work. Besides showing how common and damaging it is, these revelations also brought to light that much sexual harassment were open secrets: known by many but cloaked in silence in networks of powerful perpetrators, complicit lieutenants, or other victims afraid of the consequences of speaking up.

In their paper, Haskayne researcher Sandy Hershcovis, Ivana Vranjes (Tilburg School of Social and Behavioural Sciences, formerly post-doctoral associate at Haskayne School of Business), Jennifer Berdahl (University of British Columbia), and Lilia Cortina (University of Michigan) propose a theory on network silence around sexual harassment. They identify three types of silence behaviours manifested in networks of powerful harassers:

1) Staying silent in the face of sexual harassment. Victims’ concealment about their experiences or witnesses’ collusion are examples of staying silent.

2) Silencing others in the network to dissuade them speaking up or reporting the case of sexual harassment. This can include more experienced organizational members encouraging less experienced members to ‘shut up’.

3) Not hearing when someone from the network shares their concerns about a case of sexual harassment. Organizational members with the power to do something about sexual harassment may say they did not know, that sexual harassment fits with their own experience, or claim this is ‘just the way it is’.

Hershcovis and colleagues argue that many people stay silent to protect their own interests. As a result, silence around sexual harassment is more likely to occur in networks when harassers:

  • Have higher levels of power and status, as well as strong ties to other people in their network;
  • Are instrumental in the success of the members in their network; or
  • Are powerful men.

Sexual harassment is more likely to be tolerated in this way in belief systems that valorize men and masculinity, as well as support sexual harassment myths such as victims lying about sexual harassment to get something they want from the powerful harasser.

What can leaders do to challenge these networks of silence?

Network silence around sexual harassment can have many harmful consequences for victims, witnesses, and organizations. First and foremost, silence enables sexual harassment to persist and leaders have the power to prevent future acts of sexual harassment and by taking action on behalf of victims. This involves leaders challenging sexual harassment when they see it occur and support victims who disclose experiencing sexual harassment. Leaders are often the perpetrators of sexual harassment, so taking action involves leaders challenging other leaders. A key first step is to acknowledge that a network of silence around sexual harassment exists, and that leaders are key in both perpetuating and disrupting it.

The full paper can be accessed here.