What is Learned Helplessness and How it Harms the Victims of Workplace Discrimination


What is Learned Helplessness and How it Prevents Women from Speaking Out

It is a known fact that most organizations have some forms of covert and overt sexism and harassment as well as discrimination along racial, ethnic, and sexual lines.

Indeed, sexual and other forms of harassment are so rampant in many organizations that most experts believe that unless there is radical action taken to combat them and prevent them, the contemporary workplaces would continue to be hubs of discrimination and harassment.

One manifestation of the way in which most abusers get away with harassment and discrimination is the reluctance of their victims to come forward and complain against them.

This hesitation on part of the victims is as much to do with the fear of the powerless against the powerful as it is do with what is known as Learned Helplessness, or the term used to describe how workplaces impose explicit and implicit rules of conduct that prevent the victims of harassment from speaking out.

It is not enough for corporates to have strict anti discrimination policies unless there is an equal determination to enforce them and ensure justice to the victims no matter who is the abuser.

The Culture of Consent and How Does Learned Helplessness Work in Practice

So, how does Learned Helplessness work in practice? To start with, most organizations have their workplaces that tolerate and permit men and for that matter, women, to pass comments and indulge in what can be construed as loaded remarks and innuendo filled humour and sexist jokes with their colleagues.

These conversations and banter happen during Coffee breaks and over the water cooler as well as in the cubicles during working hours.

The prevailing culture in many organizations is that such banter is considered harmless and a manifestation of the saying, Men will be Men, which impose a form of implicit consent of the targets or the victims of such banter with their abusers.

Indeed, when women employees think that others cracking jokes on them is considered normal and ok and more so, when there is no real censure against the male employees, then the culture of consent becomes the norm rather than the exception.

While this is part of all organizations, the real trouble starts when such women find themselves the targets of sexual advances and harassment based on gender and racial lines and they do not have the courage to fight back due to the prevailing Culture of Consent.

How Asymmetric Power Relations Combine with the Implicit Silence of the Victims

Learned Helplessness has other manifestations as well and when taken to the extreme, it can lead to the women employees leaving the organizations.

For instance, the courageous among the victims who speak up and complain are often stigmatized as well as having their complaints dismissed by other authority figures.

Worse is when senior managers and even the Human Resources personnel find ways and means to cover up and deny the victims their due.

Indeed, in our working experience, we have found that most women employees put up with harassment rather than speak out since they fear that it would affect their careers and their reputations.

This aspect of reputational loss is more prevalent in Asian corporates where the prevailing culture relegates women to secondary roles in most spheres.

Moreover, learned helplessness also happens when even those who are on the verge of speaking out confide in sympathetic colleagues only to be told that it happens everywhere and that speaking out is not practical.

In addition, Learned Helplessness can happen in instances where the women and their male superiors are in an Asymmetric Power situation or in other words, the latter have power over their victims due to the their rank.

The #MeToo Movement, the Visakha Guidelines, and Combating Learned Helplessness

Having said that, there are ways in which Learned Helplessness can be combated and we found that some firms have anonymous helpline and discreet recording of complaints to protect the identity of the victims.

This recording of complaints happens in a confidential manner and more often than not, the helpline is staffed with employees who are sensitive and compassionate towards the victims.

Moreover, such complaints have to be acted upon as well and the testimony of the victims has to be recorded in a manner in which it does not demean them or cause them further mental agony.

In addition, some corporates set up committees to examine the complaints and in recent years, with the courts mandating the mandatory formation of an In House Anti Sexual Harassment Committee under the Visakha Guidelines, it is now illegal to not have such mechanisms for redressal.

Apart from this, there is also the aspect of how corporates must not hush up or cover up the complaints.

For instance, in recent months, there have been some high profile cases after the #MeToo movement that targeted powerful men and in most cases, the accusations have just led to a mere Slap on the Wrist punishment.

Empowering and Liberating Workplaces

Last, with more and more women joining the workforce, it is clear that workplaces need to sensitize themselves to the menace of covert and overt sexism.

In addition, with Gender and Sexual Minorities joining corporates, it is time to end discrimination based on those lines as well.

Indeed, with courage and conviction, the victims must be empowered to speak out and their grievances heard if corporates are serious about having a truly liberating workplace culture.

To conclude, the #MeToo movement brought out many skeletons in the closet of corporates and it is not time to take action against the abusers.


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The article is Written By “Prachi Juneja” and Reviewed By Management Study Guide Content Team. MSG Content Team comprises experienced Faculty Member, Professionals and Subject Matter Experts. We are a ISO 2001:2015 Certified Education Provider. To Know more, click on About Us. The use of this material is free for learning and education purpose. Please reference authorship of content used, including link(s) to ManagementStudyGuide.com and the content page url.