Workplace Sexual Harassment: A Rampant Problem
It's a phrase we've all come to know.
Tarana Burke posted that sentiment on Myspace in 2006. The goal was to foster "empowerment through empathy," especially among women of color who'd been sexually abused and assaulted.
Those two simple words became the confidence booster women needed to voice their own experiences with sexual abuse and harassment. Knowing many others had faced sexual harassment and attacks helped make complaining less taboo.
But, there's been little data collected on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace.
So, Resume-Now stepped in to find out. They surveyed 785 American employees, asking about their experiences with sexual harassment and their attitudes on this touchy topic.
Although inappropriate and criminal sexual behavior lessened thanks to the #MeToo movement, this study found that sexual harassment in the workplace is still shockingly pervasive.
Here's a small dose of the unsettling data to set the stage:
- 55% had experienced sexual harassment at work.
- 28% did not feel that their complaint of sexual harassment was taken seriously.
- 47% reported their employer did not offer sexual harassment training.
Those Who Faced Sexual Harassment
It's important to define "sexual harassment."
According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, (which applies to workplaces with 15 or more employees), the following types of sexual harassment are illegal:
- Quid pro quo—a supervisor requests sexual favors and promises rewards. Examples: "I'll give you a raise if you sleep with me" or "I'll fire you unless you go out on a date with me."
- Unwelcome physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature that creates a hostile work environment, severe or pervasive enough as to alter the employee's working conditions or create an abusive work environment.
- Offensive comments about gender that create a hostile working environment, Examples: A woman being told, "You should act more feminine." Or, a man not allowed in meetings held by women/having his work sabotaged by females.
It's disturbing, but 55% of all respondents said they'd been sexually harassed at work.
The breakdown was 62% women and 48% men.
In 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stated that although anywhere from 25–85% of women say they experience sexual harassment at work, few ever report the incidents, most commonly due to fear of retribution.
But when able to answer anonymously in our survey, respondents felt empowered to share the truth. And the numbers were disturbingly high, particularly for women:
- 10% of women shared that they had been sexually harassed "more than five times" compared with 0.5% of men.
So who carried out the sexual harassment towards these employees?
Our colleagues should be people we can relax with and have safe chats with. Unfortunately, the colleagues of those who participated in the survey were the main culprits.
We asked, "Who were you sexually harassed by?"
- 40%—Senior employee
- 17%—C-suite executive
- 6%—My Report (Someone I supervise)
Differences in percentages were not statistically significant between males and females.
Speaking of perpetrators.
A New York Times story on Thursday, October 5, 2017 created quite the buzz with an investigative story about the sexual violations of Harvey Weinstein. This spurred the viral #MeToo phenomenon and men everywhere were shaking in their boots about whether they had purposely or inadvertently sexually harassed a female at work.
Subsequently, male supervisors became more cautious and afraid that lewd behavior and comments would be reported. Because of this, sexual harassment has become more subtle, thus less "reportable."
One study's data suggests that while blatant sexual harassment has declined, workplaces may be seeing an increase in less overt hostility toward women.
It's not the likes of Franklin Hart, Jr., the boss in the hit movie "9 to 5," who spouts such gems as,
"At least you're pretty. You should see some of the crones who come through here."
Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda, who play his employees got a bit carried away in their response to his sexual harassment.
Spoiler Alert: He winds up in the hospital from the rat poison in his cup-o-joe.
But, it's no wonder things got a bit dramatic, as the effects of sexual harassment can be traumatizing.
Symptoms of Sexual Harassment
Most of the respondents said that "emotional exhaustion" was the main symptom they experienced from the sexual harassment.
The top three symptoms for women:
- 58%—Emotional exhaustion
- 33%—Sleep problems
The top three symptoms for men, with a tie for third place:
- 56%—Emotional exhaustion
- 28%—Sleep problems
17% had experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD), due to the sexual harassment they faced.
And our findings are backed by other studies.
According to a paper produced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:
"The impact of sexual harassment in the workplace is real and damaging.
Employees that experience sexual harassment are more likely to report:
Psychological symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, stress, and anxiety. Physical problems such as headaches, sleep problems, gastric problems, weight loss/gain, etc."
Although there are different types of sexual harassment, all of them contribute to an employee feeling psychologically disturbed and even physically ill. What are the types that the respondents had experienced?
What They Endured—From Lewd Comments to Sexual Assault
Sexual harassment comes in many forms. By far the most common for those who took part in the survey was "sexual comments."
We asked, "What forms of sexual harassment did you experience?" and made it clear that "All options assume unwanted behaviors, not actions by someone you are romantically interested in or involved with."
The top five sexual harassment behaviors from the general group:
- 43%—General sexual comments or innuendos
- 43% —Sexual comments about your body
- 33%—Someone calling you girl, hunk, doll, boy, baby, honey, or other pet names or demeaning names
- 33%—Whistling, catcalls
- 30%—Work topics turning into sexual topics
There were noticeable differences in the percentages for males and females for all of the actions selected.
- 37% of women selected, "Work discussions turning into sexual topics" vs. 21% of men.
- 20% of women chose, "Someone standing too close or brushing up against you" compared with 7% of men.
- 25% of women picked, "Someone asking you about sexual fantasies, preferences, or history" compared with 11% of men.
There were 26 options and in every case, women had experienced it significantly more than men. The only case in which the percentages were even close was for "someone spreading rumors or lies about your personal sex life." 7% of women chose this and 6% of men.
Those who had endured sexual harassment shared the way it made them feel. A range of outcomes can be seen by their experiences.
The most shocking of all the data:
10% of women said that they had experienced actual or attempted rape or sexual assualt at work. This is compared with 4% of men.
And again, our findings are backed by hard data from respected sources.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center:
"Eight percent of rapes occur while the victim is at work."
From the Resume-Now study, 79 of the women had been sexually attacked and 31 of the men.
It's horrifying to experience such a violation and it is incredibly difficult to tell others what you have endured.
Reported Sexual Harassment and Retaliation
"Women who accuse men, particularly powerful men, of harassment are often confronted with the reality of the men's sense that they are more important than women, as a group."
― Anita Hill
Back in 1991, Anita Hill famously and bravely made allegations that Clarence Thomas, a federal circuit judge, had sexually harassed her while he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and the EEOC.
The backlash was extreme. Many called her delusional and accused her of being a spurned, "uppity" black woman.
Long story short, reporting sexual harassment often ends up repeating the trauma of the harassment itself.
In a paper titled, "National Prevalence of Sexual Violence by a Workplace-Related Perpetrator" the authors gave data on the reporting of sexual violence and harassment at work.
They conducted a study and found that approximately 4% of women reported harassment by employees who were not in authority and 2% reported harassment by authority figures. They also found that 2% of men reported harassment by non-authority figures and about 0.6% reported harassment by authority figures.
That's why it was encouraging to see that 67% of the respondents had reported the sexual harassment they'd experienced. Women reported it a little less than men: 66% vs. 70%.
But was their brave effort recognized and taken seriously?
We asked, "How much do you agree or disagree with the following statement: I felt my complaint of sexual harassment was taken seriously."
- 22%—Strongly Agree
- 4%—Strongly Disagree
Women disagreed more. 30% of women disagreed with the statement compared to 26% of men.
Sadly, many of those who came forth and reported the sexual harassment had been retaliated against.
The National Women's Law Center's informational site defined "retaliation" as follows:
Retaliation is when an employer treats you less favorably because you reported sexual harassment or supported someone else's report. Some things that may be retaliation:
- Being given fewer shifts or hours getting cut.
- Being given less responsibility at work or taken off projects especially if this means you are paid less.
- Suddenly being disciplined for something that was not a problem before.
- Being fired.
Based on the study,
- 1 out of 2 women said they'd faced retaliation
- 66% of men said they'd been retaliated against
Out of that 67% who had reported the sexual harassment, a striking 53% said they'd been fired after reporting. Interestingly, more men said they'd been fired than women.
- 60% of men said they had been fired after reporting sexual harassment vs. 47% of women.
All this despite the Civil Rights Act clearly stating that:
It is illegal for an employer who is covered by Title VII (has 15 employees or more) to retaliate against an employee for filing a claim of sexual harassment or against a witness for reporting it.
All this retaliation could be a direct result of a lack of sexual harassment prevention. National conversations about appropriate behavior are taking place. But, according to the American Psychological Association, only 32% of Americans said that their employer has taken steps to mitigate and address sexual harassment in the workplace.
Though false accusations are not common, some of the respondents felt that they had been falsely accused.
The prevalence of false reporting for sexual assault crimes is low—between two percent and 10 percent. There is currently little data on the percentage of false or unfounded reports of sexual harassment in the workplace.
36% of respondents said that they'd been falsely accused of sexual harassment, with a breakdown of 38% of men and 35% of women. Sadly, women seem to be catching up to men in dishing out sexual harassment.
When asked to select the response to the false accusation, women were more angered.
- 55% of women selected, "I was offended and angry" as opposed to 40% of men.
- Men were twice as likely to say sorry: 40% said they'd apologized compared to 20% of women.
- A stunningly high number said they "took action against" their accuser: 14% of women did so, and 12% of men.
The Me Too movement has perhaps helped in raising awareness in men about how to respond to accusations. Based on the results above, it seems women could be more sensitive to coworkers coming forward with accusations of sexual harassment.
If so many who are accused are lashing back, it's no wonder some feel afraid to speak up. And what about those who witness sexual harassment? Are they reporting it?
Witnessing and Reporting Sexual Harassment
Even if you're not the target, witnessing sexual harassment can be disturbing. And it's crucial to address the situation as quickly as possible.
If you witness offensive conduct, you may also be a victim of sexual harassment even if not directly harassed.
- 54% of respondents had witnessed sexual harassment. That's 424 potential victims.
- 46% of those who witnessed sexual harassment said that it upset them.
They were a brave bunch too. A large number had reported the harassment.
- 67% said they had reported the sexual harassment they witnessed.
We then asked if they agreed or disagreed with this statement, "I felt my report was taken seriously."
- 24%—Strongly agree
- 6%—Strongly disagree
If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of witnessing sexual harassment in any form, National Partnership for Women and Families has this advice:
"As a bystander or witness to harassment, you can play an essential role in supporting the person targeted by harassment.
Consider an immediate intervention to support someone who is being harassed."
They go on to say it's best to address the behavior right off the bat, plus document and report it.
It's better to have a work culture of employees who are carefully considering their behavior than acting impulsively and offending and hurting others.
Second Thoughts and Opinions
We've all been there.
We say a slightly off-color joke by the water cooler and realize after that we may have made someone uncomfortable.
In a workplace environment, it's best to not take any risks. Make sure you don't tread into dangerous territory with comments that could be considered derogatory or offensive towards either sex.
The fact that 60% of the respondents had at some point "said or done something and wondered if it would be taken as sexual harassment" could actually be taken as a positive sign that there's enough awareness of how our words and actions are perceived.
But how high is the awareness level regarding typical workplace topics that can spawn sexual harassment complaints?
We asked the respondents three questions to test their opinions on sexual harassment-related topics.
First up: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement, "Women who wear tight-fitting clothes or show a lot of skin probably want guys at work to flirt with them."
- 20%—Strongly disagree
- 12%—Strongly Agree
So, effectively, 30% agreed that women who wear tight clothes or short skirts are asking men to flirt with them.
Take a look at the next statement. Do you think it yielded a more sensitive and enlightened response?
"Women are being too sensitive about the 'sexual harassment' topic."
- 21%—Strongly disagree
- 13%—Strongly Agree
Nope. 34% felt that women are being too sensitive about sexual harassment.
Not that encouraging.
"It's okay to flirt with someone at work even if they aren't interested."
- 29%—Strongly disagree
- 10%—Strongly Agree
Well, 26% believing it's okay to flirt with someone who's not interested at work is not what we'd hoped for, though it's a statistical improvement from the other two questions.
The results from the study of 785 American employees show that sexual harassment is rampant. Men are facing sexual harassment as well, though not as often as women.
Thie prevalence of sexual harassment could be due to the fact that only 53% said their company offered sexual harassment training. Those residing on the West Coast reported having more training at 60%, and those in the Southeast the least at 48%.
Employers, take note—
The legal costs of tolerating harassment cases can be hefty.
In 2017, the EEOC published the financial settlements it reached on behalf of employees. The amount: $46.3 million in monetary benefits for employees in relation to sexual harassment charges. And, those costs are most certainly underestimated as the actual payouts made by employers. That's because the EEOC litigates only a fraction of the charges it receives.
Based on the data from this study, there is a lot of room for improvement. Here are some suggestions:
- Implement up-to-date sexual harassment training, especially where it's lacking.
- Take employees seriously when they allege experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment.
- Communicate policies, making sure employees are aware of the procedures for filing complaints and the expectations of behavior for all employees.
We surveyed 785 respondents online via a bespoke polling tool on sexual harassment in the workplace. All respondents included in the study passed an attention-check question. The study was created through several steps of research, crowdsourcing, and surveying.
The data we are presenting relies on self-reports from respondents. Each person who took our survey read and responded to each question without any research administration or interference. There are many potential issues with self-reported data like selective memory, telescoping, attribution, or exaggeration.
Some questions and responses have been rephrased or condensed for clarity and ease of understanding for readers. In some cases, the percentages presented may not add up to 100 percent; depending on the case, this can be due to rounding, or due to being part of a larger statistic, or due to responses of "neither/uncertain/unknown" not being presented.
Fair Use Statement
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- A Report to the President and the Congress of the United States by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, "Sexual Harassment in the Federal Workplace"
- American Psychological Association, "In Era of #MeToo, Majority of Employees Say Their Employers Fail to Take New Steps Addressing Sexual Harassment"
- Basile, K., D'Inverno, A. Wang, J. "National Prevalence of Sexual Violence by a Workplace-Related Perpetrator"
- Fitzgerald, Larsen. S. "PTSD Symptoms and Sexual Harassment: The Role of Attributions and Perceived Control"
- Johnson, S., Keplinger, K., Kirk, J., Barnes, L. "Has Sexual Harassment at Work Decreased Since #MeToo?"
- Lipnic, Victoria A., Feldblum, Chai, "Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace"
- National Partnership for Women & Families, "Know Your Rights: Witnessing Sexual Harassment at Work"
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center, "Ending Sexual Assault and Harassment in the Workplace"
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center, "False Reporting"
- National Women's Law Center, "Workplace Sexual Harassment: The Basics"
- Raghu, M., SURIANI, A & J, "#MeTooWhatNext: Strengthening Workplace Sexual Harassment Protections and Accountability"
- Shaw, E., Hegewisch, A., Phil, M., Hess, C., "Sexual Harassment and Assault at Work: Understanding the Costs"