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Five Years of #MeToo: Sexual Harassment Still Common in Workplaces

A woman wearing a hijab's shoulders are being massaged by a man.

​In October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, "If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet."

The post went viral. Women around the world began using the hashtag #MeToo and describing their experiences as survivors of sexual harassment and abuse. The movement, started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006, boomed in popularity and became a rallying cry against sexual misconduct and rape culture.

However, five years later, reports show that sexual harassment continues to run rampant in workplaces.

A recent survey by The Shift Work Shop, an HR consultancy firm in New York City, found that 53 percent of nearly 1,700 respondents had dealt with sexual harassment in the past 12 months.

"Despite ongoing media attention and increased mandates for training, overall, there is a systemic problem that needs transformational change to create meaningful and lasting impact," said Amanda Rue, founder of The Shift Work Shop.

People who had experienced sexual harassment at work in the past year included:

  • 49 percent of white workers.
  • 50 percent of male employees.
  • 55 percent of female employees.
  • 56 percent of Hispanic workers.
  • 61 percent of Black employees.
  • 67 percent of Native American and Indigenous workers.

The most common type of harassment cited was unwelcome sexual advances (46 percent of those who had been harassed). About 36 percent of respondents received requests for sexual favors, which illustrates "misplaced and inappropriate sexual desire within the workplace," Rue said.

Remote workers were more likely than onsite employees to have experienced sexual harassment in the last 12 months (56 percent compared with 50 percent), the report revealed. Remote employees often faced harassment via e-mail and internal messaging apps.

"We believe this is due to a variety of factors, including gaps in training and the lack of consequence of sexual harassment via digital channels," Rue said.

Workers Are Less Tolerant of Workplace Harassment

While sexual harassment continues to plague workplaces, most people in the U.S. believe workplaces are less tolerant of harassment and abuse and more supportive of those who report these incidents than they were five years ago, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.

Among about 6,000 workers surveyed:

  • 70 percent said workplace harassers and abusers are more likely to be held accountable today than in 2017.
  • 62 percent believe accusers are more likely to be believed than they were prior to the expansion of the movement.
  • About 50 percent who had heard of the #MeToo movement expressed support for it.
  • 21 percent opposed the #MeToo movement.

Respondents were also more likely to believe that it is more common for targets of sexual harassment or assault to not report the misconduct than it is for people to lie about harassment or abuse in the workplace.

Cathy Tinsley, academic director for the executive master's degree in leadership program at Georgetown University, who is unaffiliated with the study, said the #MeToo movement has helped spread awareness of the ubiquity of sexual harassment.

"I think the viral nature of the movement has contributed to an overall broader societal trend toward increased awareness of diverse perspectives and an acceptance that there could be systemic discrimination," she said.

What Can Companies Do?

There are many ways organizations can reduce sexual harassment in the workplace.

Laura Close, DE&I expert and co-founder of analytics firm in Kirkland, Wash., mentioned how Burke has urged workplaces to update all sexual-harassment policies and workplace trainings to combat sexual misconduct.

"These workplace-specific goals point at the fact that sexual harassment has always existed and will continue to crop up in various forms," Close said. "Men at all levels, as well as leaders of any gender who hold power over direct reports, need to hold each other accountable and act with integrity."

Rue offered several tips for companies to create a safer workplace:

Create multiple channels of anonymous reporting. This ensures that employees feel safe to communicate when any issues arise, no matter how small or seemingly innocuous.

Establish clear consequences for misconduct. Include an accountability process as part of your employee handbook to create a clear expectation for how the company deals with inappropriate behavior in the workplace. While some incidents may not require an immediate firing, this can create a path of repair for both the employee and the culture.

Make it known that safety starts with everyone. All employees play a role in creating a safer workplace. There is a shared responsibility and mission to prevent harassment and create inclusive and open environments so that everyone can thrive.

"Sexual harassment and sexism continue to be a systemic issue that is not going away anytime soon and will not be fixed simply with annual training," Rue added. "We need transformative culture changes within our organizations … that are willing to acknowledge the impact of power, sex and relationships of all kinds within the workplace."


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