Why didn’t you tell? Over the last couple of weeks since the news about Jian Ghomeshi broke, that question is being asked, and actually answered, by many women. Women who have experienced harassment, degradation and violence from men they knew. As horrific as the Jian Ghomeshi stories are, the upside has been a spark in debate and open discussion about violence against women; a long overdue conversation. For some reason the publicity of the events has led to a public safety zone where women can come forward with their stories without being shamed and blamed.
On the noon hour CBC phone in last week many women called in to answer the question the host was asking. – “Why didn’t you tell?” One after another described abuse – both physical and sexual – that they had never disclosed. Their courage and braveness in speaking out was inspiring.
For many of them the reason for not telling at the time of the abuse was shame. But also because they knew that speaking out and reporting to the police would lead to a process every bit as traumatizing as the event itself. These were primarily stories about abuse from men they knew and they were aware that the question they’d be asked is ‘why did you put yourself in a position like that?’ They knew their sexual history would become a topic for in-depth discussion and that they would have to face those who judged their past behaviour as some sort of reason for them to be abused.
All of Jian Ghomeshi’s alleged victims have reported this as being a core reason why they did not tell. By reporting the violence they would have been forced to publicly battle a beloved public figure in a “he said, she said” war. It is understandable why they would not want to put themselves through that. The system is established in a way that re-victimizes those who come forward.
It also explains why so many women suffer sexual, verbal and physical harassment in the workplace without ever speaking out especially when it comes from a person in power. Who will believe them? Who will say that they asked for it? For many it is simpler just to leave. This is understandable, but the problem is the abuser will just find another victim.
This also goes for those who are victims of bullying in the workplace. Many suffer in silence afraid of the consequences of coming forward. The greatest fear I have found is that they worry no one will believe them, nothing will be done about it other than an investigation and after it all they will have to return to working alongside the bully who is now even angrier and ready to retaliate.
How many of us have in-depth policies and procedures on harassment and bullying in the workplace? Yet from what I have seen there is still not many workplace cultures where it is believed by employees that harassment and bullying will not be tolerated, perpetrators will be stopped and victims are completely safe speaking out. And as I’m writing this I am trying to think of the reason why.
But I can’t. I suppose there isn’t one reason why. At the end of the day it comes down to strong leadership both in the workplace and society.
Those in positions of power and leadership, women and men, must stand up and say enough. We must provide a culture and society where victims are believed and not blamed. Where the perpetrator only shoulders the shame. Where we never have to ask again “why didn’t you tell?”
Partner & Senior Consultant