For decades, federal and state laws have prohibited sexual harassment on the job; despite this fact, extraordinarily high rates of gender-based workplace harassment still permeate virtually every sector of the American workforce. Public awareness of the seriousness and scope of the problem increased astronomically in the wake of the #MeToo movement, as women began to publicly share countless stories of harassment and abuse. In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace published an important study analyzing a wide range of factors contributing to this phenomenon. But the study devotes only limited attention to a factor that goes straight to the heart of the problem: our reflexive inclination to discount the credibility of women, especially when those women are recounting experiences of abuse perpetrated by more powerful men. We will not succeed in ending gender-based workplace discrimination until we can understand and resist this tendency and begin to appropriately credit survivors’ stories.
How does gender-based credibility discounting operate? First, those charged with responding to workplace harassment--managers, supervisors, union representatives, human resource officers, and judges—improperly discount as implausible women’s stories of harassment, due to a failure to understand either the psychological trauma caused by abusive treatment or the practical realities that constrain women’s options in its aftermath. Second, gatekeepers unjustly discount women’s personal trustworthiness, based on their demeanor (as affected by the trauma they often have suffered); on negative cultural stereotypes about women’s motives for seeking redress for harms; and on our deep-rooted cultural belief that women as a group are inherently less than fully trustworthy.
The impact of such unjust and discriminatory treatment of women survivors of workplace harassment is exacerbated by the larger “credibility economy”—the credibility discounts imposed on many women-victims can only be fully understood in the context of the credibility inflations afforded to many male harassers. Moreover, discounting women’s credibility results in a particular and virulent set of harms, which can be measured as both an additional psychic injury to survivors, and as an institutional betrayal that echoes the harm initially inflicted by harassers themselves.
It is time—long past time--to adopt practical, concrete reforms to combat the widespread, automatic tendency to discount women and the stories they tell. We must embark on a path toward allowing women who share their experiences of male abuses of workplace power to trust the responsiveness of their employers, judges, and our larger society.
Seton Hall Law Review, Vol. 51, Issue 2, Pp. 289-329.
Scholarly Commons Citation
Epstein, Deborah, "Discounting Credibility: Doubting the Stories of Women Survivors of Sexual Harassment" (2020). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 2253.