The Stigma Against Women who Report Sexual Harassment (and Why I’ll Never Have a Normal Job Again)

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Getting sexually harassed sucks, but what sucks even more is that that’s only the start of a sucky journey on the suck train to Suck City. This is something many women already understand, because we’ve been through it and it’s obvious. Unfortunately, our lived experiences aren’t enough for many men to accept, so luckily SCIENCE is here to explain it to them, scientifically.

Sociologists at Stanford have just published new research showing just one way in which sexual harassment can do more damage than just being extremely upsetting in the moment: reporting sexual harassment in the workplace may make your boss less likely to promote you or give you a raise.

In this study, subjects were asked to review the employee file of a woman named Sarah. In all the files, Sarah was a good worker who enjoyed her job, but in some of them she had reported to HR that a coworker made sexually explicit comments about her body. Another group read that Sarah reported to HR that a coworker shouted at her, and for a final group there was no harassment reporting at all.

The subjects then answered how likely they were to give Sarah a promotion. The groups with no harassment or with the shouting harassment were pretty much equally likely to promote her, but  those who read that she reported being sexually harassed were significantly less likely to promote her. Further research indicated that the reason was because those subjects felt Sarah was less likely to be “warm” or to have good social skills.

So yeah, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Sarah could have kept her mouth shut and gone on being sexually harassed, or she could give up a chance at a promotion. There is no right answer. The game is fixed.

There is some good news. The researchers found that if it was one of Sarah’s coworkers who reported her sexual harassment to HR, the subjects were less likely to punish her. That means that if you are a witness to sexual harassment, you can do something by saying something (with the permission of the victim, of course — not getting a promotion isn’t the only possible negative side effect of going public with these accusations).

The other good news is that the #MeToo movement happened just after this study was concluded. When the researchers went back and reran the study to see if the movement had made any difference, they did find that now people were less likely to punish Sarah for reporting her sexual harassment. In the original experiment just weeks prior to #MeToo, subjects averaged a 3.9 on a scale of 1-7, with 1 being not at all likely to promote Sarah and 7 being very likely. By January of 2018, just four months later, that number rose to 5.1.

As with many social science experiments, there are way too many moving parts to know for sure that this is the result of #MeToo, and not just a coincidence, or due to some other social shift, or maybe it’s just the result of getting more data. And the lead researcher, Chloe Grace Hart, points out that “people who speak out against sexual violence continue to be questioned and maligned. There is no guarantee that people who report sexual harassment will now be treated fairly, so it is still reasonable to worry that reporting it may harm one’s career.”

This issue is obviously near and dear to me, because I went through hell on earth for mentioning that I was often sexually harassed by skeptics and atheists and because I gave one example I thought was very obvious of a strange dude asking me to his hotel room at 4am after I’d spent an entire day talking about the problem of sexual harassment. What’s nuts is that the harassment campaign I withstood wasn’t just a flash in the pan. It’s been EIGHT YEARS, and yet I still have an army of men who follow my every move and spread misinformation about me wherever they can. As an example, last week I noticed traffic from Reddit going to one of my videos, so I checked out the thread. Sure enough, there are a few dudes in there just posting nonstop lies: one says I had spoken to the guy in the elevator previously (I hadn’t), that I claimed it was predatory rather than an awkward incident of him not knowing what the right time to ask was (in fact I made it clear in the video that the whole reason I was talking about that incident was because I think a lot of guys are just not thinking when they do these stupid things), and another guy actually hilariously claims that he knows I made the entire story up (why would I do that) because I was “presented with pictures of the people in the skeptic clique in the bar before the imagined elevator incident” and I “couldn’t point the guy out.” Was there a fucking police interrogation? Did someone show up to a line-up claiming to be me? Like, that never happened. Someone literally just made that up, probably said it in a YouTube video and now EIGHT YEARS LATER dudes are shouting about it on Reddit because someone else posted a video of me explaining the origins of the phrase “Judeo-Christian” values.

Eight years have passed and I still don’t get to have a normal career online. I don’t get to just talk about science and critical thinking, because there will always be men lying about me in the comments. Always. I will never be able to get a mainstream job like I used to have, writing copy or whatever for a company, because everywhere they look there will be men lying about me. Why? Because I tried to stop men from sexually harassing women in the skeptic and atheist communities, and because I tried to help men get better at interacting with women they’d like to fuck.

The Stanford researcher rerunning the experiment and finding positive changes after #MeToo makes me feel a little better about all this: sure, it’s never going to get better for me, but by speaking out maybe I can help change society itself so that the next woman who speaks out about it might go through a little less shit.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. “There is some good news. The researchers found that if it was one of Sarah’s coworkers who reported her sexual harassment to HR, the subjects weren’t less likely to punish her.”

    Possible typo on “weren’t”? Because otherwise that doesn’t _sound_ like good news?

  2. Apropos of nothing, I suppose; but I was shocked – I’d like to think of a stronger and better word for it, but I can’t – at the reaction by a broad swath of what was then thought of as the skeptic “community” to those comments by you, and to statements and disclosures by other women in the community saying basically the same things about their own experiences. People I had always respected and thought of as rational and even, just seemed to go absolutely over the rail when they started discussing this issue, and I became so disillusioned that I ended up leaving “skepticism” behind (as a part of my identity, not the methodology of course). In retrospect, it seems like the skeptical community had what amounts to the beginnings of a MeToo moment, but completely failed to rise to it – or more like positively quashed it.

    I almost had to laugh a couple of years later when GG happened, because it was practically a shot-for-shot remake; it was seriously uncanny.

  3. The HR training at my company says we have a duty to report harassing behavior we observe, and asking the victim if you should can contribute to a hostile culture by making only the specific victim responsible for deciding what is harassing behavior. I have no idea if there’s any empirical validation to that idea, but it runs contrary to one clause of one sentence in your post and I thought I’d share.

  4. Hi Rebecca,
    I’m sorry you’ve had such an awful experience.

    I’ve been diverted to your website from PZ Myers. I was confused by his reference to Michael Shermer and Sam Harris.

    How do you feel they have contributed to your awful experience or are relevant to the whole chain of events?

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