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Deconstructing the Misogynist Myth: Sexual Harassment and False Reporting

False reporting as a mythical scare tactic overshadowing our real problem of sexual harassment.

Guest blog from Metta Space

In a recent U.S. survey55% of male respondents were more concerned about false reports on sexual harassment than the present discrepancies in the gender pay gap.

This shows that the majority of concerns rather centre on false claims of harassment and/or abuse than towards women actually experiencing such degrading situations.

Zooming in to the official data in the United States, false reporting is statistically quite rare and low regardless of the type of crime committed. For sexual harassment cases, false reporting ranges from 2 to 10%, which is a lower rate to those for murder and kidnapping.

As the statistics stand then, men are actually more likely to be sexually assaulted and/or killed by other men than being falsely accused of sexual harassment and discrimination by a woman.

False Reporting — Why is it an Issue?

With the explosion of the #MeToo movement, those affected by sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, especially women, have been offered a safe and open space to share their respective experiences and raise awareness on these (unfortunately) still widespread and common practices within the work environment.

As any movement trying to raise their voices on social issues #MeToo had, and still has, its trail of doubters trying to undermine its legitimacy and purpose. Their favourite argument being that it prompts and favours the development of false reports due to a “misinterpretation of common kindness as sexual come-ons”, which are exaggerated and transformed into something that can have significantly serious consequences on someone’s reputation.

Without denying the fact that false reports in sexual harassment cases can happen and do exist, it is important to note that the media (and misogynists) tend to overestimate false accusations and might shed light on the wrong issue, due to confusions on what behaviours constitute sexual harassment in the first place.

But: Are these claims considered false because they don’t rise to the legal (or common) definition of what sexual harassment is or are they really fabricated?

In our previous article, we discussed and showed how people’s misconceptions about what constitutes sexual harassment can play a significant role in the maintenance of institutional sexism and discrimination in the workplace, especially towards minority groups like women or those from the LGBT community.

Because if we think about sexual harassment, we can all agree that when someone grabs another person’s genitals or even threatens to not promote them without sexual favours, it is a pretty straightforward form of sexual harassment.

However, some might not consider subtle comments and jokes about someone’s physique or personality, or even being stared at, as forming part of sexual harassment — when actually, it does.

In a study made by the Metta Space Team, only 57.6% of respondents considered the latter situations (jokes, comments, staring) sexual harassment, showing that it is rather the physical and direct interactions that are generally thought about when defining sexual harassment.

Thus, due to the inherent disagreement about the definition of sexual harassment, and the evident ambiguity on whether these types of incidents constitute sexual harassment, these types of “grey areas” may impede the target when trying to report the harasser.

Due to this fine grey line, cases therefore could be, and often have been, considered invalid just for reasons of discrepancy in the definition of what actually constitutes sexual harassment. They have for that reason, been considered to be false reporting.

The Myth of the False

False reporting, however, is a myth. And you might ask yourself why that is.

For a report to be considered false, someone first needs to make one. And already here, only around 7% of those who have been harassed actually report it, for the simple reason that they do not feel comfortable nor safe undertaking these steps.

In a recent survey focusing on sexual harassment in the tech industry, 39% of those who were sexually harassed decided not to report by fear of retaliation and 30% decided not to report due to their willingness and desire to forget about the incident.

These results show that reporting is still a step that those affected by sexual harassment do not take by fear of reprisals or negative impact on their reputation and professional career.

Yet, the perpetuation of this myth can create unfavourable conditions to improve and develop better processes and policies at the national and company-level to investigate claims of sexual harassment.

When Donald Trump Junior explained that the #MeToo culture made him “worry more for sons than daughters”, it showed us that there is still a lot of work to be done to shift the interest on real issues: gender pay gaps, unconscious gender biases, institutionalized sexual harassment.

This culture of blame shifting, and the myth of false reporting provides male-dominated industries with the perfect conditions to perpetuate the exclusion of women in the professional field by fear of potential reputational damages.

But, men are actually valuable and important allies in the fight against the perpetuation of institutional sexual harassment and provide essential opportunities for connections and networking to grow professionally.

Women cannot do it alone. Through the promotion of the false reporting myth, men are more likely to further exclude women from key events that could help their careers and rather, create a proliferation of doubt over their claims — further perpetuating the silent treatment experienced by those targeted by sexual harassment.

The Road Ahead

The increasing claims that false reporting is on the rise and the current focus of mainstream media on this myth only promotes the shift towards drawing the attention away from the issue that actually needs to be addressed: sexual harassment.

The reality is that, despite the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, women are still falsely being greeted with suspicions in relation to their reports of sexual harassment. And this in turn does not only encourage them not to speak up about abuses that they have witnessed and/or experienced in their workplace, but shifts the conversation away from how to change sexually harassing behaviour.

This false reporting myth needs to be shattered to stop the perpetuation of institutionalized sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace and finally provide a safer and more inclusive working environment for all.

Written by: Diane Valat, Research Ambassador at Metta Space
Edited by: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of Research & Development at Metta Space

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