The following post is adapted from the Research Snapshot Sexual Harassment: What Utahns Need to Know, published November 1, 2017. To see all referenced sources please view the full Snapshot on our website.
Women who reported sexual harassment, the “silence breakers,” were chosen by Time magazine as the person of the year for 2017
Although workplace sexual harassment has likely been around since the conception of workplaces, and sexual harassment has been illegal in the U.S. for decades, 1 it is safe to say that the issue has never received as much attention as it has since the autumn of 2017.
Sexual Harassment Defined and Quantified
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
Clear and comprehensive definitions of sexual harassment (including examples) are a key part of efforts to reduce harassment incidents in the workplace. Recent surveys by the EEOC showed that when women were asked generally if they had experienced “sexual harassment” (without defining the term), 25% of women indicated that they had. However, when the term was defined specifically and examples were given, the percentage of women responding affirmatively rose to 40%.
Harassment Targets and Hotspots
Although sexual harassment can happen anywhere and to anyone, certain populations and locations seem to be of particular risk. Over the past 30 years, white women have been the subject of most research concerning sexual harassment, yet women of color are often more likely to be targeted for variety of reasons. According to Equal Rights Advocates, African American women and Latinas are the most likely U.S. women to be among the working poor and employed in low-paying, service occupations, which is where sexual harassment is most frequently reported.
Women in the U.S. who are undocumented immigrants also face a heightened risk, as potential harassers assume (often correctly) that these women would avoid reporting harassment for fear of deportation or other legal repercussions. Race is not the only risk factor related to sexual harassment. A recent survey showed younger women were more likely to say they had experienced sexual harassment than older women. This may be because their youth or professional inexperience may make them seem an easier target, but also because of a difference between generations in defining and discussing these issues.
At its core, harassment of any kind thrives in situations where there is an imbalance of power; hence, a specific population that is disempowered— because of gender, race, economic or educational inequality, age, orientation, or other factors—is more likely to experience harassment in the workplace.
Up to 75% of those who report workplace harassment experience some sort of retaliation at work.
The Costs of Harassment
Sexual harassment—whether or not it is recognized or labeled as such—has serious negative implications for those who experience it. Effects include physical, mental, and emotional problems, such as anxiety, depression, loss of sleep, weight loss or gain, and more. Women who have been harassed also suffer financial hardship, both short term losses from taking sick days or unpaid leave to avoid the harasser, and longer-term financial harm that can stem from loss of productivity, being denied promotions or raises, or quitting their jobs. These negative impacts may be even greater if women report the harassment at work; research shows that up to 75% of those who make such reports experience some workplace retaliation (even though retaliation against one who files a claim is an additional illegal violation).
The costs of sexual harassment are not limited to those who experience it; companies in which harassment occurs may also pay a heavy price. Even though most women do not file charges, EEOC estimates show that the costs to settle or award damages for sexual harassment cases are in the hundreds of millions every year. But this is only a part of the total costs to companies. Loss of productivity from employees being harassed or witnessing harassment, absenteeism, the need to replace employees who quit, low morale among workers, and a damaged reputation within industries can all affect the bottom line for companies when sexual harassment occurs.
What Utahns Can Do
Many companies have anti-harassment policies and include sexual harassment trainings in their on-boarding process. Research over the past 30 years has shown that these policies can vary in effectiveness, and critics have argued that such policies are sometimes merely in place to protect a company in case of litigation.
Yet even companies with the best intentions to prevent workplace harassment can fall short if they rely on formal policies alone to address this issue. Experts agree that if corporations are to combat sexual harassment effectively, the message must come from top leadership, clearly and regularly, that sexual harassment is not tolerated. A one-time, impersonal overview of policy is insufficient and can even be counter-productive, based on the quality of the training. Instead, a culture that supports, values, and respects all employees will continually take opportunities to prevent harassment.
Of course, individuals and other stakeholders must do their part as well. Research has shown that bystanders, especially men, can play a powerful role in stopping workplace sexual harassment. Parents and teachers can instruct and model respectful behaviors and attitudes for young people as they prepare to enter public life, including the workplace. Open discussions of harassment in the media can reduce stigma and empower those who may have feared to come forward with their experiences. Finally, all organizations can recognize the value of diversity in their leadership. Research shows that as more women are in high levels of leadership, sexual harassment declines.