Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, and Donald Trump all reportedly harassed and preyed on women for years, abusing their power with impunity from the distant heights of fortune and fame. Yet these are just a few of the more high-profile cases of men who were eventually caught in the act. Research suggests that between 30 to 50 percent of women report being sexually harassed at work, and only a small percentage of women who experience it report it.

For ages, women have had to endure such abuse from men in authority. It comes in many types: from the slights of sexual innuendo to the horrors of molestation and worse. Some acts are blatantly illegal, while others are less clearly so. Mainstream American culture seems to ebb and flow in its recognition, tolerance, and encouragement of the misogynistic norms that increase the likelihood of such acts. Today, in particular, it feels like anything goes.

When women in the workplace are put in these positions, most experience a dilemma. Particularly if they are in need of a job, new at work, highly dependent on a position, or just wishing to get along or make a good impression, they face an often impossible choice. Do they ignore it, laugh it off, and go along to get along? Or do they resist and report it? These choices often have serious consequences.

Of course, sexual harassment is unprofessional, immoral and illegal, and shouldn’t be tolerated. But given that it is—in far too many places—how can a woman (or male target) respond? Most likely, the target of the abuse will feel enraged and betrayed, and will want to lash out, or possibly feel traumatized and unable to speak. These are natural and fitting responses. So here is a strategy for responding that friends, co-workers, or others who offer support should be mindful of when counseling the target.

I call it Strategic Rebellion. This is a deliberate choice to rebel strategically against such advances in a manner that minimizes harm to the abused while maintaining a maximum sense of integrity. It involves learning how to resist, systematically and sequentially, by turning up the heat on those in positions of authority. The following tactics are gleaned from the literature on psychology and community activism and are presented here in a sequence from low- to high-risk: from persuasion to resistance to mobilizing for power. Of course, they may all be useful and necessary when fighting this fight but they are presented here in a sequence from lower to higher risk.

Persuasion Tactic #1: Appeal to the harasser’s self-interests. If the offense is a first encounter of this nature with them, it is possible that they are unaware of the implications of what they are saying or doing. So exploring their actions, trying to get some sense of their intent, and then discussing it in terms of the potential costs and implications for them, is one way to test the waters. This signals your discomfort and gives them a way to quietly withdraw without losing much face. If they don’t, move on to #2.

Persuasion Tactic #2: Appeal to the harasser’s morals. Most of us like to believe that we are essentially decent people. We are uncomfortable with the dissonance we feel when we become aware of the fact that our behavior is inconsistent with our better selves. Emphasizing the more fair, decent, and humane aspects of people, particularly in the context of an encounter where they may be evidencing more coarse or despicable intentions or behaviors, can help to highlight this gap and increase their dissonance. Ideally, this shames them sufficiently to shut down the behavior. If not…

Resistance Tactic #1: Just say no. If 1 and 2 don’t work, then it is best to simply, quietly refuse. Since what is happening is unethical, immoral, and likely illegal, then your straightforward refusal may be enough to worry or intimidate them into backing off and reconsidering their actions. If not…

Resistance Tactic #2: Say no louder. When simply refusing doesn’t work, it’s time to turn the volume up by bringing in others. This can mean speaking with friends and colleagues and getting their advice and support. If this is not possible without also putting them in jeopardy, then it might be time to blow the inside whistle. This could entail speaking to the harasser’s supervisor, or if the behavior involves the supervisor as well, speaking to that person’s superiors, an ombudsperson or with human resources. Because you might be met with silence or collusion by hirer ups, you will want to inform as many people inside the organization as possible who are paid to prevent and mitigate sexual harassment.

Resistance Tactic #3: Broadcast no convincingly. When tactics 1 through 4 don’t work, it is time to consider blowing the outside whistle. This is a big decision and is likely to have serious consequences for you and for others. Researchers have found that whistle-blowers are more likely to be effective if they have high credibility within the organization, forgo anonymity and identify themselves at the outset of the proceedings, if the organization is not highly dependent on the wrongs being enacted, and if the evidence of the wrongdoing is convincing and clearly illegal. While broadcasting no, it is also very important to…

Continued in Part 2...

 

Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on the faculty of Teachers College and The Earth Institute at Columbia. In 2003, he received the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He lives in New York.