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Sexual harassment at work in the era of #metoo, many see new difficulties for men in workplace interactions and little effect on women’s career opportunities.
Recent allegations against prominent men in entertainment, politics, the media and other industries have sparked increased attention to the issue of sexual harassment and assault, in turn raising questions about the treatment of the accused and the accusers and what lies ahead for men and women in the workplace .
Many Americans also believe the increased focus on sexual harassment and assault poses new challenges for men as they navigate their interactions with women at work. About half (51%) say the recent developments have made it harder for men to know how to interact with women in the workplace. Only 12% say this increased focus has made it easier for men, and 36% say it hasn’t made much difference.
The survey also finds that 59% of women and 27% of men say they have personally received unwanted sexual advances or verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature, whether in or outside of a work context. Among women who say they have been sexually harassed, more than half (55%) say it has happened both in and outside of work settings.
Large partisan gaps in concerns about men getting away with sexual harassment and women not being believed
When asked about sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace today, half of Americans think that men getting away with this type of behavior is a major problem. Similarly, 46% see women not being believed when they claim they have experienced sexual harassment or assault as a major problem.
Smaller shares see premature firings (34%) and false claims of sexual harassment or assault (31%) as major problems.
In general, women are more likely than men to be concerned about sexual harassment going unpunished and victims not being believed. Some 52% of women say that women not being believed is a major problem, compared with 39% of men. And while a 55% majority of women think that men getting away with sexual harassment is a major problem, 44% of men say the same. Men and women express similar levels of concern over employers firing men who have been accused of sexual harassment before knowing all the facts and about women making false claims of sexual harassment.
Concerns about sexual harassment in the workplace vary even more widely along partisan lines when it comes to men getting away with it and women not being believed. About six-in-ten Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say that men getting away with sexual harassment (62%) and women not being believed when they claim they have experienced it (60%) are major problems. By contrast, just 33% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents see men getting away with it as a major problem, and 28% say the same about women not being believed.
Because the gender gap exists within each party coalition, this leaves Democratic women as the most concerned and Republican men as the least on both of these questions. For example, 63% of Democratic women and 56% of Democratic men say that women not being believed is a major problem, compared with 34% of Republican women and 21% of Republican men.
Conversely, Republicans are somewhat more likely than Democrats to say that employers prematurely firing men accused of sexual harassment is a major problem (38% vs. 31%) and to say the same about women falsely claiming they have experienced sexual harassment (34% vs. 29%).
Democrats who describe their political views as liberal express particularly high levels of concern about men getting away with sexual harassment (71% vs. 55% of moderate or conservative Democrats say this is a major problem) and women not being believed (67% vs. 54%). In contrast, moderate or conservative Democrats are more likely than their liberal counterparts to express concern about men accused of sexual harassment being fired prematurely and women making false accusations. A similar pattern is evident among Democrats with at least a bachelor’s degree and those with less education. For example, 39% of Democrats with a high school diploma or less education see employers firing accused men prematurely as a major problem, compared with 32% of those with some college experience and 22% of those with at least a bachelor’s degree. Differences by ideology and educational level tend to be less pronounced among Republicans.
Older adults, Republicans more likely to say increased focus on sexual harassment has made it harder for men to know how to interact with women in the workplace
At least a plurality of men (55%) and women (47%) say the recent developments have made it harder for men to navigate workplace interactions. There is a large partisan gap on this question, however, with Republicans and Republican-leaning independents far more likely than Democrats and Democratic leaners to say the increased focus on sexual harassment and assault has made it harder for men to know how to interact with women in the workplace. Most Republicans (64%) say this is the case, compared with 42% of Democrats.
Republican men are particularly likely to express this view: 68% say workplace interactions with women are harder now, compared with a narrower majority of Republican women (59%). Democratic men and women are both far less likely to say the same (45% and 40%, respectively).
There is a significant age gap on this question as well. Among adults ages 65 and older, about two-thirds (66%) say the heightened attention has made navigating workplace interactions more difficult for men. By comparison, 52% of those ages 50 to 64, 47% of those 30 to 49 and 42% of those younger than 30 say the same.
Roughly half of all adults say the increased focus on sexual harassment will have little impact on women’s career opportunities
Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are far more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to say women will have more opportunities in the workplace in the long run as a result of the increased focus on sexual harassment. About four-in-ten Democrats (39%) say this, compared with just 15% of Republicans. Liberal Democrats are especially likely to hold this view – about half (48%) think the increased attention to sexual harassment will lead to more opportunities for women, while about three-in-ten moderate or conservative Democrats (31%) say the same.
Among Democrats, views on this issue vary by educational attainment. About half of Democrats with a bachelor’s degree or more education (52%) think this increased focus will lead to more opportunities for women, compared with 37% of those with some college experience and 29% of those with a high school education or less.
About six-in-ten women say they have received unwanted sexual advances or experienced sexual harassment
Some 44% of Americans say they have received unwanted sexual advances or verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. About six-in-ten women (59%) say they have experienced this, while 27% of men say the same.
Among women, those with at least some college education are far more likely than those with less education to say they have experienced sexual harassment. Seven-in-ten women with a bachelor’s degree or more education and 65% of women with some college but no bachelor’s degree say they have been sexually harassed, compared with 46% of women with a high school education or less.
Reports of unwanted sexual advances or sexual harassment are also more common among white women: 63% in this group say this has happened to them, compared with half of black and Hispanic women. The shares of women saying they have been sexually harassed are largely similar across age groups.
While somewhat higher shares of Democratic than Republican women say they have received unwanted sexual advances or experienced sexual harassment, majorities of both groups say this has happened to them (63% vs. 56%).
Among men who say they have been sexually harassed, roughly four-in-ten (42%) say they experienced it both in and out of work situations. Overall, about six-in-ten men who say they have been sexually harassed (61%) say it happened in a professional or work setting; 80% say they experienced this outside of a work situation.
Men and women who say they have experienced sexual harassment are more likely than their counterparts to say that men getting away with sexual harassment or assault is a major problem. Fully 61% of women and 51% of men who say they have experienced sexual harassment hold this view, compared with 46% of women and 41% of men who say they have not been sexually harassed.
On other concerns related to sexual harassment in the workplace, the views of men do not vary by whether they report experiencing sexual harassment or not. Among women, however, the experience of sexual harassment is linked to concerns about this issue. For example, 58% of women who say they have experienced sexual harassment say that women not being believed is a major problem when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, compared with 43% of women who do not report having been sexually harassed.
All references to party affiliation include those who lean toward that party: Republicans include those who identify as Republicans and independents who say they lean toward the Republican Party, and Democrats include those who identify as Democrats and independents who say they lean toward the Democratic Party.
References to college graduates or people with a college degree comprise those with a bachelor’s degree or more. “Some college” includes those with an associate degree and those who attended college but did not obtain a degree. “High school” refers to those who have a high school diploma or its equivalent, such as a General Education Development (GED) certificate.
References to whites and blacks include only those who are non-Hispanic and identify as only one race. Hispanics are of any race.
- For more details, see the Methodology section of the report. ↩
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About Pew Research Center Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts .
Sexual Harassment and Assault at Work: Understanding the Costs
In recent months, the #MeToo movement has raised the visibility of sexual harassment and assault at work and the personal toll it takes on women’s lives to unprecedented levels. Workplace sexual harassment is widespread, with studies estimating that anywhere from almost a quarter to more than eight in ten women experience it in their lifetimes (Feldblum and Lipnic 2016). Sexual harassment and assault at work have serious implications for women and for their employers. Women who are targets may experience a range of negative consequences, including physical and mental health problems, career interruptions, and lower earnings. In addition, sexual harassment may limit or discourage women from advancing into higher paid careers and may contribute to the persistent gender wage gap. It may also intersect with other forms of discrimination and harassment on the basis of race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or disability.
Through a review of the current literature on sexual harassment and assault, this briefing paper highlights how workplace sexual harassment and assault affect women’s economic advancement and security, and the costs of these harms to employers (including estimates of financial losses where available). It also provides recommendations for preventing sexual harassment and reducing the negative effects of harassment for individuals and workplaces.
Defining and Reporting Workplace Sexual Harassment and Assault
The U.S. Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) defines sexual assault as “any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks the capacity to consent” (U.S. DOJ, OVW 2018). While sexual assault is a criminal offense, the law also recognizes sexual harassment as a form of employment discrimination. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) states that “unwelcome sexual advances, request for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature constitutes 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” (U.S. EEOC 2018a). Such harassment may include unwelcome verbal, visual, nonverbal, or physical conduct that is of a sexual nature or based on someone’s sex. Case law has established that to meet the legal standards for action, workplace harassment must be “severe or pervasive” and affect working conditions (U.S. EEOC 2018b).
Sexual harassment constitutes illegal sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is enforced by the EEOC; anyone who wants to bring a legal claim of sexual harassment under Title VII has to bring a charge to the EEOC or a cooperating state agency first.  In 2017 the EEOC received 26,978 claims of workplace harassment, of which a little more than half (12,428) were about sex-based harassment  and a quarter (6,696) specifically about sexual harassment (U.S. EEOC 2018). Between 2005 and 2015, women made eight in ten sexual harassment charges to the EEOC; 20 percent were made by men (Frye 2017). Among women, Black women were the most likely of all racial and ethnic groups to have filed a sexual harassment charge (15.3 charges per 100,000 workers), and 1 in 17 sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC also alleged racial discrimination (Rossie, Tucker, and Patrick 2018). Research suggests that only a small number of those who experience harassment (one in ten) ever formally report incidents of harassment—let alone make a charge to the EEOC—because of lack of accessible complaints processes, simple embarrassment, or fear of retaliation (Cortina and Berdahl 2008). This fear is justified: according to an analysis of EEOC data, 71 percent of charges in FY 2017 included a charge of retaliation (Frye 2017).
In 2015 the EEOC convened a Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace to better understand why harassment persists in so many workplaces and what can help prevent it. The Select Task Force looked not only at harassment that met the legal definition, but also at conduct and behavior that “may set the stage for unlawful harassment.” 
Employment Situations Associated with High Rates of Harassment
Identifying work-related factors associated with increased risk of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace may help target efforts to eliminate sexual harassment in particular occupations and situations. Some key risk factors include:
• Working for tips. Workers in “accommodation and food services”—which includes wait staff and hotel housekeepers who are typically classified as “tipped”—account for 14 percent of harassment charges to the EEOC, which is substantially higher than the sector’s share of total employment (Frye 2017). A survey by the Restaurant Opportunities Center finds that women restaurant workers who rely on tips for their main source of income in states where the sub-minimum wage is $2.13 are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment—from managers, co-workers, and customers—as women servers in states that pay the same minimum wage to all workers. The survey also found that many women employees continue to work in tipped jobs in spite of harassment because tips are an important part of their income (Rodriguez and Reyes 2014).
• Working in an isolated context. Many workers—such as female janitors, domestic care workers, hotel workers, and agricultural workers, who often work in isolated spaces—report higher than average rates of sexual harassment and assault (Fernández Campbell 2018; Yeung and Rubenstein 2013; Yeung 2015). Isolation leaves women vulnerable to abusers who may feel emboldened by a lack of witnesses (Feldblum and Lipnic 2016). Frontline reported in 2015 that ABM (described as the largest employer of janitors) had 42 lawsuits brought against it in the previous two decades for allegations of workplace sexual harassment, assault, or rape (Yeung 2015). A National Domestic Workers Alliance and University of Chicago report found that 36 percent of live-in workers surveyed reported having been harassed, threatened, insulted or verbally abused in the previous 12 months (Burnham and Theodore 2012).
• Lacking legal immigration status or having only a temporary work visa. Undocumented workers or those on temporary work visas can be at particular risk of harassment and assault. Agriculture, food processing and garment factories, and domestic work and janitorial services are fields where many undocumented and immigrant women work (Bauer and Ramirez 2010; Hegewisch, Deitch, and Murphy 2011; Yeung and Rubenstein 2013; Yeung 2015). In principle, victims of sexual violence at work who bring charges have the same protection against deportation as survivors of domestic violence through U-visas (Hyunhye Cho 2014). Yet, many fear that reporting harassment or assault will put their immigration status at risk. Others may not know their rights or may find it difficult to access legal supports without knowing English. Retaliation against women who speak up against workplace sexual assault may involve threats to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement or to revoke temporary work visas (Bauer and Ramirez 2010; Smith, Avendaño, and Ortega 2009).
• Working in a male-dominated job. Women working in occupations where they are a small minority, particularly in very physical environments (Willness, Steel, and Lee 2007) or environments focused on traditionally male-oriented tasks (Fitzgerald et al. 1997), may also be especially vulnerable to harassment and assault. In a survey from the early 1990s, close to six in ten women working in construction report being touched or asked for sex (LeBreton and Loevy 1992). In another study from 2013, three in ten women construction workers report experiencing sexual harassment daily or frequently, with similar numbers reporting harassment based on sexual orientation, race, or age (Hegewisch and O’Farrell 2015). A 2014 RAND study of sexual assault and harassment in the military estimated that 26 percent of active duty women had experienced sexual harassment or gender discrimination in the past year, including almost five percent who had experienced one or more sexual assaults (compared with seven and one percent of active duty men, respectively; National Defense Research Institute 2014). A recent National Academy of Sciences study documented high levels of harassment of women faculty and staff in academia in science, engineering, and medicine, with women in academic medicine reporting more frequent gender harassment than their female colleagues in science and engineering (National Academy of Sciences 2018).
• Working in a setting with significant power differentials and “rainmakers.” Many workplaces have significant power disparities between workers. These power imbalances, particularly given women’s lower likelihood of being in the senior positions, are a risk factor for sexual harassment and assault.  Workers in more junior positions may be especially concerned with retaliation, the handling of internal complaints, and continued vulnerability within their job. “Rainmakers”—such as a well-known professor, well-recognized or high-earning partner, or grant-winning researcher—may feel they do not need to comply with the rules that govern other employees (Sepler 2015) and may not be disciplined if accused of sexual harassment or assault (Feldblum and Lipnic 2016).
These structural risk factors often intersect and are exacerbated by racism, discrimination, and harassment on the basis of age, disability, or national origin.  In addition, working in low-wage jobs itself can entail a higher risk of harassment (Sepler 2015). Low-wage work is more likely to take place in smaller, less formalized workplaces without official complaints mechanisms. Earning low wages may also make it more difficult for a worker to leave a job, or to risk losing it by making a complaint.
Sexual Harassment Costs to Individuals
Sexual harassment and assault can affect individuals in a number of ways, including their mental and physical health, finances, and opportunities to advance in their careers.
• Negative effects on mental and physical health. A number of studies indicate that sexual harassment has negative mental health effects.  Exploratory research on the intersection of racial and sexual harassment suggests that harassment can lead to depression; one study reported that one in ten women who experienced harassment had such severe symptoms that they met the definition of PTSD (Dansky and Kilpatrick 1997). These effects can last for many years after the harassment (Dansky and Kilpatrick 1997; Houle et al. 2011). Even when relatively infrequent and less severe, harassment can have significant negative effects on psychological well-being and work behaviors (Schneider, Swan, and Fitzgerald 1997). In addition to negative mental health effects, researchers have found higher risks of long-term physical health problems in response to repeated, long-term gender-based harassment (Schneider, Tomaka, and Palacios 2001). Harassment can also lead to increased risks of workplace accidents by leaving workers distracted while working in a dangerous job (Sugerman 2018). These negative effects can often lead to significant costs for both mental and physical health services.
• Reduced opportunities for on-the-job learning and advancement . In many occupations, becoming a skilled worker and advancing in one’s profession depends on on-the-job instruction and mentorship of more experienced workers. Harassment can restrict women’s access to such learning opportunities (Hegewisch, Deitch, and Murphy 2011; Sugerman 2018). For women in the academic sciences, engineering, and medicine, a recent study found that harassment affects their career advancement by leading them to give up tenure opportunities, drop out of major research projects, or step down from leadership opportunities to avoid the perpetrator (National Academy of Sciences 2018).
• Forced job change, unemployment, and abandonment of well-paying careers . Unemployment is a concern for some women who feel they must leave a job due to sexual harassment before finding another job opportunity ( The Nation 2018). A recent study finds a high correlation between harassment and job change: eight in ten women who experienced sexual harassment began a new job within two years after experiencing harassment (compared with just over half of other working women). The study found considerable financial stress as a result of such job change, highlighting likely long-term consequences of harassment for earnings and career attainment. Harassment contributed to financial strain even when women were able to find work soon after leaving their previous employment (McLaughlin, Uggen, and Blackstone 2017). As a result of harassment, some women may leave their field entirely (National Academy of Sciences 2018).
Individual financial costs of sexual harassment vary depending on the targets’ occupations and career trajectories—those in higher-paying occupations will lose more in wages than those in lower-paying occupations. The impact of sexual harassment, however, is significant no matter the amount of the wages lost: both those with high and low incomes may rely on this money to meet basic needs and achieve economic security.
Sexual Harassment Costs to Companies
Workplace harassment can result in substantial costs to companies, including legal costs if there are formal charges of harassment, costs related to employee turnover, and costs related to lower productivity from increased absences, lower motivation and commitment, and team disruption. While there are no recent estimates of the business costs of sexual harassment, earlier studies suggest these costs are substantial. Some of the economic burden of sexual harassment comes out of taxpayers’ pockets. An estimate based on a 1988 study of the costs of sexual harassment in the U.S. Army reported annual costs of $250 million, which would be much higher in 2018 dollars (Faley et al. 1999). A U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board study from the early 1990s estimated the economic costs of sexual harassment to federal government workplaces over a two-year period at $327 million (U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board 1995).
• Legal costs. High profile sexual harassment cases highlight the potential legal costs of tolerating harassment for employers ( Fortune 2017 ) . Typically, the amount of financial payouts in settlements is kept confidential, making it difficult to reliably estimate total legal costs related to harassment. The EEOC, which publishes all financial settlements it reaches on behalf of employees, in FY 2017 gained $46.3 million in monetary benefits for employees in relation to sexual harassment charges (U.S. EEOC 2018). These costs likely substantially underestimate the actual payouts made by employers in response to sexual harassment charges because the EEOC litigates only a small number of all charges it receives (Rutherglen 2015).
• Employee turnover. Research shows that sexual harassment in the workplace can increase employee turnover (Chan et al. 2008; Fitzgerald et al. 1997; Sims, Drasgow, and Fitzgerald 2005; and Purl, Hall, and Griffeth 2016). In their study of the relationship between sexual harassment and women’s career attainment, McLaughlin, Uggen, and Blackstone (2017) found that targets of harassment were 6.5 times as likely as non-targets to change jobs. Costs related to employee turnover constitute the largest economic cost of sexual harassment, considerably higher than costs related to litigation (Merken and Shah 2014). Replacing an employee can be very expensive; a meta-analysis of case studies of the cost of employee turnover estimated average costs of 16 to 20 percent of an employee’s annual salary, rising to up to 213 percent of salary for experienced managerial and professional staff (Boushey and Glynn 2012).
• Increased Absences. An analysis The 2010 National Health Interview Survey found that those who reported having been harassed or bullied at work in the previous year were 1.7 times more likely to have had at least two weeks off work than those who had not (Khubchandani, and Price 2015). A 2016 S. Merit Systems Protection Board study (2018) found that close to one in six employees who experienced sexual harassment took sick or annual leave following their harassment.
• Reduced productivity . There is substantial research to show that workplace sexual harassment is associated with reduced motivation and commitment, as well as lower job satisfaction and withdrawal.  The negative effects of sexual harassment are not limited to the targets and can also affect those who witness or hear about harassment, and reduce both individual and team performance. One study of 27 teams at a food services organization found that sexual hostility—a form of sexual harassment that consists of explicitly sexual verbal and nonverbal behaviors that are insulting—is damaging for team processes and performance (Raver and Gelfand 2005). Based on their meta-analysis of research on the antecedents and consequences of sexual harassment, Willness et al. estimate an average cost through lost productivity of $22,500  per person working in a team affected by harassment (Willness et al. 2007).
Recommendations for Addressing Workplace Sexual Harassment
Providing resources and training and the development of new tools to prevent and address workplace sexual harassment and assault are critical to making workplaces safer for all workers and capture resulting productivity gains.
• The EEOC recommends the following interventions to help address sexual harassment and assault in the workplace:
• Employers should conduct assessments for the risk factors associated with sexual harassment and assault and conduct climate surveys to assess the extent to which harassment is a problem within their organization;
• Employers should adopt and maintain comprehensive anti-harassment policies, communicate the policies to employees frequently, offer multi-faceted reporting procedures, and “test” their reporting systems to determine their functionality;
• Employers should ensure that discipline for perpetrators of workplace harassment is prompt, consistent, and proportionate to the severity of the circumstance;
• Employers should train middle-management and supervisors on how to respond effectively to observed instances of sexual harassment;
• Employers should include workplace civility training and bystander intervention training;
• Labor unions should ensure that their own policies and reporting systems meet the same standards as employer systems;
• Researchers should assess the impact of workplace trainings on reducing the level of sexual harassment in the workplace;
• The federal government should conduct additional research, including developing and fielding new polls and/or adding questions to existing surveys on sexual harassment and assault, through agencies such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, and the Office of Personnel Management.
• Many resources and trainings are available to those who wish to prevent sexual harassment and assault at work. Promising examples include bystander intervention trainings such as “Green Dot” (Alteristic 2018), and the new EEOC Respectful Workplaces training (U.S. EEOC 2017). In addition, worker-led efforts like the “Hands Off, Pants On” initiative by union hotel workers (United Here Local 1 2018) or practices implemented by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (2018), are showing how stakeholders can work together to prevent harassment.
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This project was supported by Grant No. 2015-SI-AX-K407 awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) conducts and communicates research to inspire public dialogue, shape policy, and improve the lives and opportunities of women of diverse backgrounds, circumstances, and experiences. The Institute’s research strives to give voice to the needs of women from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds across the income spectrum and to ensure that their perspectives enter the public debate on ending discrimination and inequality, improving opportunity, and increasing economic security for women and families. The Institute works with policymakers, scholars, and public interest groups to design, execute, and disseminate research and to build a diverse network of individuals and organizations that conduct and use women-oriented policy research. IWPR’s work is supported by foundation grants, government grants and contracts, donations from individuals, and contributions from organizations and corporations. IWPR is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that also works in affiliation with the Program on Gender Analysis in Economics at American University.
 See the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund ( https://nwlc.org/times-up-legal-defense-fund/ ) or the EEOC ( https://www.eeoc.gov/federal/fed_employees/filing_complaint.cfm ) for information on how to file a sexual harassment or assault complaint.
 Sex-based harassment is harassment that makes it clear that a woman is not welcome in a job, but is not sexual in nature.
 The Select Task Force was comprised of 16 members from around the country from various backgrounds tasked with collecting and reviewing witness testimony and public comments to gain insight on workplace harassment in order to identify ways to prevent it. The work culminated with a report released in June 2016 (see Feldblum and Lipnic 2016).
 For a review of the research, see Durana et al. 2018; Feldblum and Lipnic 2016; and Khubchandani, and Price 2015 .
 See also Durana et al. 2018.
 For reviews, see Fitzgerald and Cortina 2017 and Schneider, Swan, and Fitzgerald 1997.
 For literature reviews see Willness et al. 2007 and Sojo, Wood, and Genat 2016.
 Assuming this was calculated using 2007 dollars, this would now be $27,345 per person in 2018 dollars.
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The long-lasting effects of workplace sexual harassment
The last four years have been dramatic for Kim Beaney, a 42-year-old in Sandiacre, England. But she’s matter-of-fact when describing these events.
In February 2017, she interviewed for the role of trainee inspections driver for Highways England, a government-owned company responsible for motorways and major roads, now known as National Highways. The mother of two was excited about the prospect of a progressive role with good earning potential.
“That was meant to be the start of a career,” says Beaney. “I’ve never really had a career. I’ve always worked just to pay the bills.”
The same day as her interview, a male manager at the company took her phone number from her application form and began messaging her. The messages escalated quickly and obsessively over text and Facebook, and it became obvious that this wasn’t simply workplace banter. He demanded kisses, mentioned sexual favours and sent partly nude photos. He also gaslit her, claiming falsely that her references were so poor that she needed him in order to be hired. And when she mentioned reporting him to HR, he said that he could have her killed.
Beaney felt she had to keep talking with him in order to secure the role. Eventually she was hired, and started work in April at the depot where he’d assigned her. He’d chosen the location so that a friend of his would be her supervisor, and thus would be able to exercise control over her on his behalf. Two weeks after starting work, Beaney brought a grievance to HR, whom she says blamed and belittled her, and rejected her request to change depots. Following an unsuccessful appeal, she resigned in August 2017.
That wasn’t the end of things, though. Beaney filed a claim with the Employment Tribunal, a government body that hears claims of unlawful treatment of employees. Finally, in March 2020, the tribunal ruled in her favour – calling her company’s response “atrociously poor”, and awarding her £74,000 ($100,000) in compensation.
“It was a huge amount of money,” says Beaney, who was in and out of work as her legal case progressed. “But it was never about the money… I did it because I wanted to be heard.” The case has also had broader impacts: in November 2020, Highways England signed a legal document committing to protecting its staff from sexual harassment.
The entire experience drove me to the absolute brink – Kim Beaney
"The entire experience drove me to the absolute brink,” says Beaney now.
She’s grateful to her solicitor and family, who supported her throughout her ordeal. But Beaney says she’s found it difficult to recover trust in the individuals and institutions who let her down. If harassment hadn’t derailed her position at Highways England, she believes she’d still be there, building a career. Instead, she’s currently working part-time, on minimum wage, as a delivery driver. She’s also been training and searching for positions in environmental health and safety, though this search hasn’t yet been successful.
Beaney’s case is unusual, because she went public and had a successful legal outcome; most sexual harassment remains unreported . But what’s all too common about her story is the impact the harassment has had on her life; these ripple effects have stretched – and will continue to stretch – long beyond the period of harassment itself.
Short-term impacts: unemployment, lost wages, ill health
Because incidents of this kind of inappropriate conduct are mostly kept quiet, it can be hard to define and then quantify the extent of sexual harassment. Harassment may also be perceived very differently according to background, culture and context .
What we do know is, however it’s defined, sexual harassment is reported widely in diverse sectors, including civil service , restaurants , farming and climate diplomacy . Factors including race, class and migration status all feed into who harassment affects. Yet each story will be unique.
Overall, the immediate job risks for people who report being sexually harassed include ostracism and firing. According to a 2019 Australian analysis of sexual harassment, among the cases with formal reports, 17% of victims resigned and 8% were fired (compared to 11% and 5%, respectively, of perpetrators). In other words, the people experiencing the harassment were much more likely to leave than the ones committing the harassment. A target of harassment may have to quit to avoid the harasser, or to leave an organisation that doesn’t protect their wellbeing.
Even when the person who has been harassed isn’t the one to exit, it can be uncomfortable to remain in an environment where trust has eroded. Sherry Marts, 65, knows this all too well. In 1983, when she was a graduate student at Duke University in the US, a technician started harassing her in the lab, then following her home.
Marts told her supervisor, “I can’t work in this lab anymore, because every time this guy walks in my hands shake… And his reaction was, ‘Oh, well, you just have to get used to this because it’s going to happen’.” The reaction from a senior member of staff was no better: he literally put his hands over his ears, to indicate that he didn’t want to hear it.
Marts reported this to the university’s equal employment opportunity office, which allowed the harasser to resign. “But they also made all of the faculty go through sexual harassment training again, which then made me persona non grata in the department… The older male graduate students decided I was poison, so they wouldn’t talk to me.”
After experiencing harassment, some workers can feel isolated and ostracised, especially if they still need to work alongside their harasser (Credit: Getty Images)
She had to switch supervisors – to a faculty member on the verge of retirement who was sympathetic because his own daughter was also experiencing sexual harassment. So, although she landed in a good place, Marts’ young academic career was disrupted not only by harassment, but also by the people around her who blamed her for reporting it. (Retaliation sometimes even extends to people who help victims .)
There’s also the psychological toll of experiencing sexual harassment: anxiety, depression and trauma. This can be compounded for someone who can’t afford to leave their unsafe situation.
June Barrett became a full-time domestic worker at the age of 16, in Kingston, Jamaica. They learned at an early age that “there’s a history of sexual violence in domestic work”, which followed them to their new home in Florida, US. “Once you go behind those doors, it’s just you against your employer. There’s no middleman, there’s no HR.”
In 2014, on Barrett’s first night on the job caring for an elderly client, he asked them to join him in bed. Barrett barricaded their bedroom door that night. But the harassment intensified, escalating over the next few months to groping.
Barrett didn’t inform their agency, because they couldn’t afford to be taken off the job; they needed it to cover rent and healthcare. Domestic workers often can’t complain, for risk of being labelled ‘difficult’ and losing future employment opportunities. And in Barrett’s case, the client’s daughter only laughed when witnessing her father assault Barrett.
It wasn’t until Barrett found a new job that they could finally leave. This experience is one of the many reasons that Barrett, who’s now also a labour organiser and fellow with the US-based National Domestic Workers Alliance, is advocating for the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights . Barrett believes that with protections like these and decent wages, domestic workers who are sexually harassed “will feel safe to come forward”.
Medium-term impacts: restart, debt, relationship strain
Sexual harassment disproportionately pushes women out of certain sectors, thus continuing gender segregation . Marts left academia after finishing her PhD and postdoctoral fellowship. The harassment wasn’t the only reason for getting out, but “that was like a nail in that coffin”. Studies from Australia and the US show instances of sexual harassment destroying academic careers.
Being in a climate of sexual harassment can drive out even those who aren’t directly affected.
Sara Hamilton, a graduate student in the US state of Oregon, has been supporting a close friend through a sexual-harassment case. This vicarious experience “has definitely steered me away from pursuing academia”, though she thinks she would have made a good professor. Like Marts, she plans to finish her PhD, but after that will be pursuing government or NGO work.
Gaps in employment and poor references mean many people who leave work following sexual harassment have to find work at a lower level of pay and responsibility
Adetutu Aina-Pelemo, who researches law and sexual harassment at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, says harassment culture can push people out of the legal field, too. Like academia, this is a very hierarchical industry in which junior workers depend on close mentorship and supervision from seniors. And she says, “complaining against a senior lawyer or judge has some unfavourable effects on the victim’s legal career because of the power structure of the profession”. She recalls one woman who decided to never practise law again after being sexually harassed by the principal partners at the two law firms she worked for.
This clearly translates into lost earnings over time. One US study tracking Minnesotans over 23 years showed a link between harassment in a woman’s late 20s and financial insecurity due to job change in her early 30s. Gaps in employment and poor references mean many people who leave work following sexual harassment have to find work at a lower level of pay and responsibility.
Those pushed out of their jobs and industries because of blacklisting or reputational harm might need education and training to fashion new careers. For example, Beaney has obtained an occupational safety and health certificate as she aims for a career change.
These costs can add up. Paying Today and Tomorrow , a report from the US-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the Time’s Up Foundation, profiles Amy, who was pushed out of her museum curator role where sexual favours were expected. Amy had to switch careers, and began training as a lab technician. The two years of community college, plus the lost earnings, amounted to nearly $70,000.
As the report documents, the financial toll can be especially high when debt starts spiralling, whether as student loans, credit card balances, payday loans or other forms of short-term borrowing that can have long-term effects. This can be compounded by a history of sexual harassment blocking the attainment of safety nets like homeownership.
There can also be more circuitous effects on financial instability, such as the loss of a partner’s income as a relationship falls apart. Aina-Pelemo says she spoke to one woman in the course of her research whose marriage broke down irretrievably “because of the persistent text messages sent by her boss who was sexually harassing her and at the end, she also lost the job”.
Long-term impacts: savings, retirement, revelations
Experiencing sexual harassment is linked with poorer mental and physical health into middle age . Unsurprisingly, productivity is just one of the many areas affected.
For some people who experience sexual harassment, it isn’t until they attain a certain level of security that they feel comfortable speaking out. Geologist Jane Willenbring was harassed and bullied by her supervisor as a 22-year-old graduate student while doing fieldwork in Antarctica – in one of the most remote locations on the planet.
It wasn’t until 17 years later, after she’d received tenure, that Willenbring filed a complaint with the university that employed her harasser. The university ultimately fired him , and the glacier that bore his name was renamed. “I believe that I would not be where I am today if I had said something” earlier, Willenbring wrote in her complaint .
Many workers who can’t afford to leave their unsafe situations can experience heightened anxiety, depression and trauma (Credit: Getty Images)
Similarly, it took decades for Sherry Marts to feel comfortable naming her harasser to a reporter. He’s still working in academia, while she left in part due to his stalking. Now that she’s approaching retirement, “What’s he going to do to me now?”, she shrugs.
Marts has had a varied and successful career working in science-related roles – including for a foundation, the Red Cross, and her own consultancy focused on reducing harassment and bullying at work. Both she and Barrett have found ways to fold their harassment into their work helping others, but that’s not the norm. And for many people, the accumulated financial consequences can make speaking up about sexual harassment perennially costly.
Some people who experience sexual harassment have to work longer to make up for lost retirement benefits – if they ever had them at all.
Paying Today and Tomorrow , as part of the report, calculates the lifetime costs of sexual harassment for Denise, a construction apprentice who quit her job at the age of 30 after being sexually harassed by her colleagues. She was out of work for seven months, and eventually began working as a bus driver. Compared to her construction role, this came with a lower salary, fewer benefits and no pension. If Denise continues to work as a bus driver until retirement, she will have missed out on more than $1.3 million in wages and benefits.
‘Can’t let it stop me’
Though the costs for the individual can be huge, both Barrett and Marts are encouraged by the collective movement throughout the generations to bring sexual harassment out from the shadows. For instance, says Marts, “I think what’s helping is having sort of a critical mass of women who are interested in supporting other women and making science more inclusive, and who have risen to positions of clout.”
Ultimately, however, substantial improvements will only come with structural transformation of the workplaces, cultures and legal systems that favour secrecy, hierarchy and low pay. Without sweeping changes, the harms of sexual harassment will continue to snowball for survivors.
Kim Beaney continues to experience anxiety and to worry about her harasser. But, as hard as it may be, she refuses to allow past events to dictate her future. “I can’t allow that to stop me from trying to make a success of my life,” she says.
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