Why women lose the he said-she said debate

by | Jul 7, 2017

How the he said-she said debate hurts women whistleblowers

High profile sexual harassment cases have caught public attention, but the mood shifts once a man jumps in to defend the victim. Here's how the he said-she said debate hurts women who speak up and out.


Sexual harassment is always shrouded in the he said-she said debate. Whether the cases are high-profile TV celebrities, politicians or other public figures, not just the office supervisor or letch, women's complaints are generally not treated seriously enough. When women whistle-blowers do speak up, their concerns and grievances are treated with mistrust. Their motivation is examined with forensic intensity and their stories scrutinized from every angle. They are tested to see if they are emotional, over reacting, attention deprived or have some other deeply hidden, ulterior motive. They are frequently advised to let something go and move on or told there has been a misunderstanding. They leave jobs and relationships and experience backlash (....bitch, flirt, tramp)  and even full-on smear campaigns, if they do have the temerity to speak out. Their reactions are minimised by people in authority, sometimes other women.

Read: I refuse to be afraid of walking alone

Male support

However, it's clear that the he said-she said debate changes gear when a man steps in to support the woman involved, more than if the back-up comes from other women. I was fascinated by a post regarding Amber Heard who had reported that she had suffered abuse at the hands of her ex-husband Johnny Depp, which was posted on Twitter by 3Plus.  This accusation was eventually supported by Depp's ex-manager (male). The post written by Zoe Beaty writes:

A man said Johnny Depp physically abused Amber Heard, so finally she is believed

It does seem that a woman's experience is only validated if it is corroborated by a man. In the meantime Heard has even been described as a "gold-digger." Susan Fowler, the Uber whistle blower experienced the same backlash when she published a post reflecting on her very "strange year" in Uber. Outing her own experience of harassment and exposing a deeply ingrained sexist culture, she was initially ridiculed and smeared. The HR function within Uber took no action. Even reputable external HR pundits and commentators steered a middle course, because there are always "two sides to every story." It was only when an investigation led by former Attorney General Eric Holder (male) was presented to the Board did things gather momentum.


Read: The growing public disrespect of women

Under-mined by stereotyping and bias

Beaty says that in failing to give credence to women who report abuse, discrimination and harassment:

Women are systematically and consistently undermined by these stereotypes, which leave us more vulnerable to abuse, and less able to reach out for help

In general women do not come forward with stories regarding sexual harassment to senior people or the authorities, unless they have reached breaking point. Like Susan Fowler discovered, HR are frequently not very supportive, especially is the person being accused is high-profile or adds significant business value. UK based employment legislation expert Annabel Kaye says it takes as many as 6 offences for a company to take action against workplace bullying or harrassment.

In the U.K. Shana Grice was fined by police for wasting their time when she reported her ex-boyfriend for stalking and harassment. She was found with her throat slit in August 2016 and her ex charged with murder.

Read: The worrying normalisation of misogyny

White charger syndrome

Recently a number of women have spoken out against the general sexism in the tech start-up VC sector. In an article published by the New York Times,  10 women revealed their experiences of sexism, discrimination and abuse, with supporting evidence. They had been previously advised to play the situation down and told if they pursed any formal action it "might lead to ostracism."  Reid Hoffmann a top venture capitalist has now stepped up with a powerful intervention, writing on LinkedIn about the Human Rights of Women Entrepreneurs. The question surely should be not that we need to pledges to protect women's rights in the workplaces of developed economies. That should be a given. What we need to see are pledges to hire more women partners in the next 12 months and to increase the funding given to female led start-ups. There should also be some sort of accountability where complaints from women will be taken seriously and investigated.

A culture that even gets into the he said-she said debate and in which women need male support to be taken seriously, is deeply rooted in the stereotyping and bias of male coded cultures and workplaces.  It's the same culture that prevents any steps towards gender equality doing anything more than stumbling along.

For advice on tackling sexism and discrimination in your company - Contact 3Plus now!

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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