Why Do We Scapegoat Women for Men’s Bad Behavior?

Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is published by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.

Kamala Harris is sending a simple message to corporations: “Pay women fairly or pay the price.” Her new plan to combat the gender wage gap is a beacon for change in a society that blames women.

(Global Justice Center)

Harvard tells us to spend more time at the bargaining table. Sheryl Sandberg told us to “lean in.” Sound familiar? To women, it might.

When a woman is raped or assaulted, our society tends to ask the wrong questions. How could her behavior have been different? How could she have modified her actions and her thinking to change the outcome and prevent the assault. What was she wearing? Was she drinking? Did she know the kind of place she was going to? How well did she know the people she was with?

There are no answers to any of these questions would put survivors at fault for their own sexual assault. The logic here is absurd—did she know she was in a bar where guys pick up women and then rape them?—and the message is even more frustrating—that guys rape and women should get used to it.

When a bank is robbed, we don’t blame victims for going inside with money in their wallets and tempting the perpetrators. When a person is mugged, we don’t tell them that they didn’t fight back correctly or hold onto their purse tightly enough. When kids are bullied at school, we don’t blame them for being weaker than their opponents, or unable to fight back against other kids. We also typically do not call these victims liars, persecute them for coming forward or accuse them of only wanting attention. 

We reserve our victim-blaming for women. And we mistakenly take the same victim-blaming approach to gender-based workplace discrimination.

We’ve heard it before: Women aren’t as good at negotiating. They lack preparation and skill. If they want better pay, they should change their behavior. If they changed their behavior, they’d see different results.

It’s a message embedded in inspirational TED Talks and a host of well-intentioned publications. Everyone seems to be offering women advice on how to change their behavior, attitudes and thinking in order to make equal pay. Negotiate harder. Don’t look desperate. Know your worth.

But women aren’t writing their own checks. They aren’t hiring themselves and deciding to pay themselves less than a man, nor are they undervaluing their own merits, work and degrees. Companies are doing that. Why are the women suffering because of it also tasked with cleaning up the mess?

We need a different solution. That’s where Kamala Harris came in.

The presidential candidate wants to “shift the burden away from that working woman and instead onto that corporation to prove that they are paying people equally.” She’s proposing changing discrimination laws to ensure that women and men are paid equally for the same work, and holding companies accountable for it via strict fines from the government—one percent of daily profits for every one percent of the discriminatory wage gap within their ranks.

“There should be a consequence to the corporation if they are not paying people equally for equal work,” Harris declared. “Women deserve to be paid as much as men and they are not. This has not changed over decades. We are going to have to change the way we approach the issue.”

The same goes for rape and sexual violence—an issue that we’ve been raising hell about for decades, but which still impacts epidemic numbers of women. Survivors don’t cause sexual assault; rapists do. Instead of asking women whether they could have prevented their own trauma, predators should be held accountable for causing it.

If we want to end sexual assault and close the gender wage gap, we need to have the guts to hold the bad guys accountable. We need to stop blaming victims and start demanding accountability—from individuals and institutions alike that create and sustain inequality.


Casey Jahn is the author of Casey Jahn Blog. She founded Strongbellyrising.org, a community to support those struggling against gender discrimination in the workplace. She is the managing director for the Commercial Division of Nest Seekers International in Beverly Hills, and works and represents clients throughout Southern California. Find her on Twitter @caseyjbirdfly.