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Q&A: How certain morals around workplace sexual misconduct gave rise to a counter-movement referred to as “#HimToo”

Q&A: How certain morals around workplace sexual misconduct gave rise to a counter-movement referred to as “#HimToo”
Posted 2023-03-02

A new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business shows why some perpetrators get painted as victims, and victims as perpetrators, and how some managers make it worse.

When women experience sexual assault or harassment at work, they should get sympathy and support — but research has shown that men often face few repercussions while the female victims are subject to anger, ostracization, and even job loss. While there are some men who are terminated, most men accused of sexual misconduct are actually less likely to be terminated or resign than their victims.

So why is it that in these workplace “he said, she said” situations, some colleagues support the man and target the woman when she comes forward to report sexual harassment? According to a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business, it could come down to people’s moral values of authority, loyalty and purity.

UBC Sauder Montalbano Centre for Responsible Leadership Development’s Academic Fellow Dr. Samantha Dodson (she/her/hers) co-authored the study, titled Moral Foundations, Himpathy, and Punishment Following Organizational Sexual Misconduct Allegations, and in an interview she talked about why people with certain moral values may have a tendency to turn on victims, how managers can make it worse, and why people should confront their own biases when they find themselves questioning an accuser.  


What inspired this study?

This work was initially inspired by the #MeToo movement. People who had been victimized in the workplace could finally come forward and share their stories — and I thought, “Wow, we’re going to see real social change.” But in the United States in particular, there was a counter-movement and a hashtag trended on Twitter: #HimToo. These folks were arguing in support of the men accused of sexual harassment, and there was this outpouring of sympathy and concern for them — and very little interest in what the women had to say. People would say things like, “What about his family?” and “But he’s a good guy” and “He’s contributed so much to society.” This rhetoric came up over and over again, and we found it really interesting. 


Were there particular examples that really stood out for you?

The #HimToo counter-movement hit its peak around the Senate confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Christine Blasey Ford had accused him of sexual assault, but she ended up being the victim of intense vitriol from many people sympathetic to Justice Kavanaugh who seemed to believe that she was ruining his life by making this accusation. 


You set out to find out why this happens. How did you go about it?

In the hours before and after the Senate brought Christine Blasey Ford in to testify at the confirmation hearings, we posted a survey to capture people's immediate reactions. In subsequent studies, we explored further what is driving people to be sympathetic toward these men. In the paper we labelled the excessive sympathy shown toward men accused of sexual harassment as “himpathy,” which is a term coined by scholar Kate Manne.


As part of the paper you also did an experiment where you told participants a story similar to Blasey Ford’s.

Yes, we adapted the language of both Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, and gave participants a similar story — that there’s a woman who has come forward with sexual assault allegations, but he’s saying it didn’t happen. Then we collected data about the participants’ moral values, their credibility judgements, and their emotional reactions toward the fictional victim and her alleged perpetrator.  

In another study, we found people who knew someone who had made a sexual harassment or assault allegation, then asked them questions about their experience — including how they reacted to the accuser and the accused.


What did you find?

What we consistently found across several studies was that individuals who highly value the specific morals of respect for authority, loyalty toward others (particularly in their group), and purity were more likely to feel angry at a female victim for making an accusation of sexual misconduct and feel sympathy toward the male accused perpetrator. These emotions then affected the participants’ perceptions of credibility; when they feel angry at the victim and sympathetic toward the perpetrator, they see the perpetrator as being more credible, and the victim as being less credible.


What role do managers play?

In the final study in the paper, we have a fictional manager provide some additional information about the situation, and we find they can shift these people's emotional reactions, particularly in a negative direction. If people who are high in these moral values are provided with information that confirms their beliefs — that the victim is disloyal to the organization for coming forward, for example — then their emotions tended to intensify – they got even angrier at the victim and became more sympathetic toward the perpetrator.  


What does all of this mean for victims?

They experience more social punishment from folks who are himpathetic — so these people are less willing to interact with the victim and more likely to want to see her punished in some way. So, the end outcome is that the victim who came forward is more likely to be victimized a second time because they get sexually harassed, and then experience social repercussions for coming forward.


How widespread is this phenomenon?

Himpathy is present in a small group of people. For the most part, people who learn about a woman making a sexual harassment allegation feel more sympathy toward her than toward the male perpetrator, and most people are going to support the victim and find her credible. But there's a small group of individuals who highly value things like authority and loyalty, that are more likely to react negatively to the victim and positively toward the perpetrator. The concern is that some of those people are influencing victim outcomes in a meaningful way, since women still generally report that they're victimized for coming forward.


What’s really going on here? Why are people with strong morals attacking the victim?

That's a great question. We believe these moral values might be leading to what we consider a reversal of victimhood, where instead of seeing the woman who says she was sexually harassed as a victim, they're actually seeing her as a perpetrator of injustice to the person she's accusing. So she is the harm doer by making an accusation. We argue in the paper that moral values of authority, loyalty, and purity can influence this victimhood reversal, because the victim is calling into question the goodness of someone they respect as a person of power in a position of authority. As such, they feel a desire to protect the alleged harasser and punish the accusing victim.

For example, some of these people may feel like it is “the right thing” to support authority figures when they are accused because they have so much respect for people in positions of authority. Most of us have grown up learning the importance of supporting authority figures which is not a bad thing, but if it’s out of balance then it can blind us from any harm that these leaders may be causing. But it’s important to remember that these moral values of loyalty, authority, and purity are fairly intuitive, and we think these responses happen pretty quickly, so it could be that himpathetic people are largely unaware of the extent to which they are doing this.


So are these morals a bad thing?

I want to emphasize that these aren't inherently bad things to value! It's good to be loyal. It's good to respect authority. But in this specific instance, when the allegation is being perceived as an injustice, and as an affront to these moral values, it seems to be leading some folks to see the alleging sexual harassment victim as the perpetrator of harm — shifting their attention away from the possible harm he caused her.


What effect can this have within organizations?

One concern is that organizations might not be taking the appropriate action to investigate and address these situations in a neutral manner if people who are himpathetic have power to dismiss allegations. Look at Harvey Weinstein: there were people in his organization who knew what was going on and protected him for decades. They forced out the women who made allegations, shut them down and protected Weinstein. Now we're seeing the fallout of that. They’ve lost millions of dollars and their credibility in the industry. So, protecting the perpetrators, rather than addressing the problem upfront when the first allegation is made, can come at a greater cost to an organization.


What would you like to see happen?

We recommend actions like bringing in neutral third parties to conduct investigations, or if you're going to investigate internally, make sure you have a committee instead of just one or two individuals.

And if a manager is dealing with a situation where someone has come forward with a sexual harassment allegation, which can be really challenging, we suggest they avoid saying anything negative about the victim or saying positive things about the perpetrator. The best thing they can do is to stay as neutral as possible and let the independent third-party investigation do its thing.


What do you hope other people will do?

I hope that when people learn of sexual misconduct, they will take pause and consider their emotional reactions. If you feel an intense negative reaction to the accuser, perhaps consider why you felt that way and seek more information before making any immediate conclusions. Moral values are ingrained beliefs that develop over time and are important to helping societies and people function. I don't want people to think we’re saying, “These moral values are bad. You need to change values.” We're saying that in certain instances, maybe question why you are reacting the way you are.

We're seeing some important social and organizational changes occur following the #MeToo movement. Several high-profile cases have recently gone to trial and succeeded — although certainly men are also still getting away with sexual harassment. For every person on the news who is facing repercussions, there are many more who are not. We are hopeful that this work provides some guidance on how organizations can better support victims who choose to share their story and punish perpetrators when warranted.