Women have always found ways to help each other survive racism and sexism in the workplace by meeting informally outside of work for validation and support. This support might be in the form of listening to and understanding stories of mistreatment; sharing tips for how to deal with discrimination, salary negotiation, and work-life balance; or sharing the names of sexual predators to increase a woman’s ability to protect herself at work. Women across the decades and occupations have always benefited from this type of support in safe spaces such as living rooms and coffee shops. But the rise of the internet has opened important new forms of safe space.

Julie Creswell and Tiffany Hsu of the New York Times explain that the internet has become a clearinghouse for complaints. The recent outpouring of sexual harassment complaints against high- profile individuals has heightened awareness of sexual harassment and opened a floodgate of untold stories as women discover that they are not alone in their experiences of inappropriate behavior. Long unvoiced or ignored, pent-up complaints of inappropriate behavior are pouring out into public and private online forums. It still remains unsafe for most individuals to lodge formal complaints with human resources (HR) departments whose primary interest is protecting powerful people and the legal interests of organizations. Individuals are still at risk of retaliation or of being ignored, but the large number of women (and men) coming forward makes it safer. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) notes that outrageous and unchecked behavior has been going on for so long that fewer than two in ten female harassment victims ever file a complaint for fear of retribution.

Creswell and Hsu note that current public forums and invitation-only online support groups include the following:

  • Tech Ladies, an invitation-only Facebook group
  • #HelpASisterOut, a forum for advice on how to file a complaint or learn about a company’s culture
  • Blind, an app for anonymous chats about the workplace
  • BetterBrave, an online guide to resources for sexual harassment victims
  • SheWorx, an advocacy group for online entrepreneurs

Creswell and Hsu explain that social media platforms yield results for sexual harassment victims who are ignored by their HR departments. For example:

  • When Susan Fowler of Uber published her blog with accusations about sexual harassment by her supervisor that had been ignored by HR, she got action, including the firing of the company founder.
  • Two women at YouTube reported Andy Signore for sexual harassment to HR and nothing happened. When they went public on social media, he was swiftly terminated.

There is a downside, of course, to anonymous online allegations, which can spread quickly and damage reputations with no chance for the accused to defend themselves. We do need just and fair processes—for everyone. Women haven’t had them. We are now in a period of realignment where the pressure may be back on for organizations to take women’s complaints seriously and to put effective policies and procedures in place that protect women and work for everyone. We had good practices in place in the 1990s after Anita Hill brought the issue of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas out into the light of day, but then they were replaced by corporate lawyers with arbitration clauses in employment contracts and nondisclosure agreements that do not protect victims of harassment. It’s time to get back to protecting women and men from harassment.


Photo by Donna Cleveland, CC BY 2.0.


This article republished with permission from Anne Litwin & Associates.  Article originally published on December 4, 2017.  See this article on annelitwin.com.