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Report: Sexual Harassment Has Long-Term Economic Impact on Women

A man is helping a woman on a laptop.

​Sexual harassment in the workplace can have long-term economic impacts on the victims resulting in depression, decreased engagement and/or the decision to leave the job, according to new research from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in Washington, D.C.

Women and men reported experiencing sexual harassment—verbal and nonverbal insults, hostile and degrading attitudes, and demeaning jokes and comments—but the rates were higher for women, AAUW found. 

Women 25 to 44 Years Old File Majority of Sexual-Harassment Charges

Below are the percentages of sexual-harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by women from 1995 to 2016, broken down by age. Sexual harassment in the workplace can have long-term economic impacts on the victims—the majority of whom are in prime earning years—who may disengage from their jobs, quit their jobs or leave their field entirely.

Source: AAUW report Limiting Our Livelihoods: The Cumulative Impact of Sexual Harassment on Women’s Careers.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]

"Given its prevalence, sexual harassment cannot be ignored as a possible contributor to the pay gap," AAUW said in its report Limiting Our Livelihoods: The Cumulative Impact of Sexual Harassment on Women's Careers.

When women leave a job because of sexual harassment or retaliation, it's often to a lower-quality job or one that pays less, contributing to occupational segregation, the report said.

"So many leave quickly in order to feel safe" before they have a well-paying job lined up, said Kim Churches, AAUW's CEO.

In fact, 38 percent of women who reported that they were harassed said the harassment contributed to their decision to leave their position or job earlier than planned, and 37 percent said sexual-harassment patterns disrupted their career advancement.

The findings are based on a nonrandom sampling of 311 AAUW members and their networks during the summer and fall of 2018. AAUW asked respondents, who self-identified as women, about the types of harassment they experienced, whether the harassment impacted their career advancement, whether they reported the experience, and their reasons for reporting or not reporting the harassment. Survey respondents' median age was 64.

AAUW also looked at sexual-harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) from 1995 to 2016. Harassment appeared to be most prevalent in the early and midcareer years but remains a problem throughout women's careers. Sixteen percent of all women who submitted charges of sexual harassment to the EEOC were 45 to 55 years old; almost 4 percent of women who submitted charges were over age 55.

Harassment takes various forms: 61 percent in AAUW's survey reported unwanted sexual attention such as sexual advances, unwelcome expressions of sexual or romantic interest, unwanted touching, or persistent requests for dates or sexual contact. Twelve percent reported experiencing sexual coercion, including making conditions of employment contingent upon sexual cooperation.

Long-Term Consequences

The effects, AAUW said in its report, compound over the course of a woman's life and career, contributing to long-term consequences that affect her future economic security.

Career advancement, for example, often depends on mentorship or on-the-job training from more senior workers. If the mentor is a harasser, the targeted person may have to choose between personal safety and career. Avoiding the harasser by cutting back on work hours or time spent around that person could impede training opportunities. Those who are harassed may try to keep a low profile, which can hurt promotion opportunities, Churches said.

"[They] may be working very hard for the organization … [but] they keep their head down and try not to be noticed, and if you're not raising your hand and showing your energy," that can impede your career.

The stereotype of harassment targets, Churches said, is women in entry-level jobs, such as the film-industry ingenue who is preyed upon by a producer or director with power over her career. However, AAUW discovered that sexual-harassment victims tended to be in their mid-to-late 30s. People in marginalized groups also experience other forms of harassment. AAUW cited a 2010 study that found women of color are more likely to experience both sex- and race-based harassment than white women.

A majority (59 percent) of people who were harassed did not report it to their employers, the EEOC, the police or the media. Some did not do so because they feared retaliation, did not think they would be believed or did not think the problem would be rectified. Older women who did not report harassment may have entered the workforce at a time when harassment was culturally accepted, or, nearing retirement age, they feared retribution that would result in joblessness.

What Employers Can Do

AAUW recommended the following steps to root out harassment:

  • Create a sexual-harassment-prevention policy that is well-defined and includes examples of prohibited behavior. Base the policy on a commitment to diversity and inclusion rather than legal compliance.
"Your policies and procedures should not be window dressing. Don't be afraid to open up a can of worms" and talk about this issue, said Brigitte Gawenda Kimichik. She is co-author of Play Nice: Playground Rules for Respect in the Workplace (Brown Books Publishing Group, 2019).  

  • Incorporate the policy into the employee handbook, and regularly train and engage employees and supervisors on it.
  • Create a procedure that identifies HR professionals who are designated to document and investigate complaints. Explain this process, which should offer a range of reporting methods and multiple points of contact, such as an ombudsman.
"Not everybody wants to … sit down in front of HR" to report harassment, Churches noted. A variety of reporting methods allows employees to "raise their voices without facing retaliation or retribution."

Employers should be transparent with the complainant about the investigative process, which can be done without revealing personnel details. Microsoft, for example, is creating an employee advocacy team to assist workers through the investigative process, and it plans to publish statistics on concerns that are reported and how often a violation is found. It announced its plans after employees used an internal e-mail thread to share stories of mistreatment.

Millennials and members of Generation Z have grown up expecting that when a wrong occurs, something will be done about it, said Deb Muller, CEO and founder of HR Acuity in Summit, N.J. They will not hesitate to record wrongs with their ever-present smartphones and share them on social media.

  • Provide bystander training that gives employees the skills to intervene and report harassing behavior.
"There's been a lot of confusion out there about what is sexual harassment and lot of confusion about reporting [it] and raising the subject matter," Kimichik said.

  • Conduct regular, anonymous climate surveys to get an idea of the workplace culture and identify potential problem areas. 
Muller suggested contacting the complainant after an allegation has been filed to thank the person for coming forward, ask if he or she was treated with dignity and respect, and find out how likely the person would be to recommend that others contact HR with a similar issue. The follow-up could include an update on the complaint process.

  • Train leaders at all levels to model good behavior and require them to exemplify and enforce acceptable behavior.
"Your top executives have to participate in training sessions, and they have to be realistic training sessions," Kimichik said. Give them reading material, she suggested, followed by a discussion of real-life examples of how to address sexual harassment in the workplace.

Also, frame scenarios to make unacceptable behavior personal. A male employee would never tolerate being dispatched in the middle of a meeting to run an errand for someone, Kimichik said, and would not want his wife, daughter or sister to be treated similarly.

"If you take care of it in the moment and explain" what was said or done was inappropriate, "you'll gain their respect," and they will eventually learn from the experience.