Latest allegations against a Fox News host speak volumes about why women don’t report harassment

Bill O'Reilly and others like him move on with their lives, but not usually the women they harass.

Bill O'Reilly on the Today show. CREDIT: YouTube
Bill O'Reilly on the Today show. CREDIT: YouTube

On Tuesday, Bill O’Reilly was interviewed by Today‘s Matt Lauer about reports that he sexually harassed several women he worked with at Fox News. O’Reilly said the allegations were a “hit job” and did not admit to sexual harassment, even when Lauer asked him if he regretted anything about the way he has treated women.

Despite his claims, five women were paid a total of $13 million to agree not to file lawsuits or speak publicly about allegations that he harassed them. In April, O’Reilly left Fox News with nearly double that amount ($25 million) and is now promoting a new book and hosting a new newscast of his own. But many women who report harassment can’t blithely move on with their careers as O’Reilly did. An all too common result is that they suffer more harassment and are undermined at their jobs, if not pushed out of their jobs entirely.

The most recent Fox News lawsuit shows that when women attempt to push back against their harassers, they can lose career opportunities. Scottie Nell Hughes, a political commentator, is suing Fox News and says that one of its anchors, Charles Payne, raped her in 2013 and that afterward, he used his position of power to pressure her into exchanging sex for opportunities at the network. She said that when she stopped seeing Payne, the network lashed out and stopped her appearances. The network also reportedly leaked a story that they had an affair right after the sexual relationship with Payne ended.

This kind of reaction to harassment appears isn’t just a part of the culture at Fox News — it’s actually emblematic of women’s experiences when they report sexual harassment across several different industries and fields of work. One in three women between the ages of 18 and 34 said they have been harassed at work, and 71 percent of women who have experienced sexual harassment do not report it, according to a 2015 survey. That’s because women know there are consequences to reporting, and that most of the time it won’t be the harasser who suffers.

When Harvard Business Review interviewed women about their experiences with sexual harassment, women said they were worried about retaliation from their harasser or the organization they work for, not feeling as if they could step in for other women when they were harassed, and being part of a culture that condones harassment of women. Women have incentives to ignore or downplay harassment they experience or see other women experience because that is the cost of excelling in a male-dominated workplace, according to HBR.

In 2017, the Equal Opportunity Commission reported that 45.9 percent of all charges filed for workplace discrimination received in 2016 were for workplace retaliation from employers. Race, disability, and sex were the top three workplace discrimination charges. According to University of Michigan and University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business researchers, only a quarter to a third of those who suffered harassment at work told a supervisor or union representative. Even fewer people filed a formal complaint.

These fears extend from the tech industry to the fast food industry. According to a recent Women in Tech survey, 53 percent of women said they had experienced harassment when working in tech and 60 percent said this happened multiple times. Of the thirty-five percent of the women who said they reported the incident, 35 percent said they suffered repercussions but only 9 percent said their harassers experienced consequences for their actions. A 2016 national survey found that 40 percent of women in the fast-food industry reported facing sexual harassment in their workplaces. La’Ray Reed, a transgender woman, filed a civil rights lawsuit against McDonald’s after she was sexually harassed and asked if she was a boy or a girl. A week after she called the franchise owner to complain about her treatment, she was fired.

People who experience sexual harassment not only suffer career consequences; they also suffer mental health consequences. Research shows that when women experience objectification, it breeds feelings of anxiety, shame, and self-monitoring. Long-term experiences could psychological trauma symptoms due to lifelong exposure to these microaggressions.

There are things employers can do to cut down on harassment, researchers say. A 2014 study on sex-based harassment’s findings led researchers to recommend that employers should try to achieve a gender balance at every level of their organization to reduce harassment. Researchers also say employers need to provide assurances that people who report harassment will not be retaliated against and guarantee protection against non-employer retaliation and confidentiality of complaints, if it is possible. There should also be clear policies on how to report harassment, what kind of behavior is considered unacceptable, and training on harassment, including an explanation of what constitutes employer retaliation.