Sexual violence and harassment are widespread societal issues impacting Americans broadly across race, income, gender, disability, and other socioeconomic lines. The average worker in the United States spends approximately 50 hours per week, which equates to approximately 30 percent of their time, participating in work and work-related activities (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). This indicates that a workplace environment plays a vital role in employee safety and wellbeing. Sexual harassment in the workplace is sexual violence (Sexual Harassment & Violence: Facts). Therefore, when discussing the topic of sexual violence in the workplace, it will include sexual harassment.
Workplace sexual violence includes, but is not limited to, attempted or completed non-consensual sex (e.g. rape), quid pro quo sexual violence, which are requests for sexual favors as a condition for employment, employment advancement, or some other benefit, lewd gestures and inappropriate statements (e.g. lewd jokes or threats of sexual violence), conduct that creates a hostile work environment (e.g. sexually explicit communication), and unwelcomed sexual advances and contact (e.g. groping) (Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, n.d.). It is especially important to note that proving sexual violence is incredibly burdensome on victims, and it is especially burdensome in isolated working environments and quid pro quo sexual violence instances as there is often a lack of witness(es). This puts a nearly impossible burden of proof onto the victim.
To showcase how ubiquitous sexual violence is in the workplace, The American Journal of Preventative Medicine reports that 1 in 18 (5.6 percent) women and 1 in 40 (2.5 percent) men have reported experiencing sexual violence in the workplace (Basile, PhD et al., 2019). The key word here is “reported.” Unfortunately, violent crimes involving sexual assault is the most underreported crime (Langton et al., 2012). It is especially underreported in the workplace due to an amalgamation of power dynamics, workplace policies designed to protect employer liability, victim fears, difficulty in identifying sexual violence as it happens, systemic ignorance about sexual violence, along with broad societal inequities, which will be discussed in other sections below.
Since the #MeToo Movement, more victims have used their voices to talk about and report experiences of workplace sexual harassment and violence. Data accrued from Feldblum and Lipnic (2016) shows anywhere between 25 to 85 percent of all women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. The highest rates of sexual harassment occur in workplaces without policies (Gruber, 1998), have isolated settings (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Robbins), that employ tipped workers (Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, 2014), have undocumented workers (Human Rights Watch, 2012), and workplaces with gendered power disparities (Gullotta & Bloom, 2014).
Sexual violence happening in the workplace is a high cost for victims, workplaces and the economy as a whole. These next three sections will break down the effects of workplace sexual violence on micro (individual), meso (employer/workplace) and macro (economy) levels. Then, a synopsis of current approaches to resolve this epidemic will be discussed followed by additional recommendations and policy needs to reduce sexual violence and promote employee safety and wellbeing in the workplace.
Sexual Violence: Individual Impacts in the Workplace
Sexual violence is a crime of power and control (Denton County Friends of the Family, n.d.). It does not discriminate as it can happen to anyone. Most charges from workplace sexual violence stem from harassment on the basis of sex, race, disability, age, citizenship status, and national origin (Feldblum & Lipnic, 2016). The impact of sexual violence is very real and incredibly damaging. Employees who experience this type of violence are more likely to report having psychological symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, stress, and anxiety along with ties to disordered eating, self-blame, reduced self-esteem, emotional exhaustion, anger, distrust, fear, lowered satisfaction with life, substance abuse and more (García-Moreno & Riecher-Rössler, 2015).
Physical problems are also more likely to be reported including headaches, sleep problems, gastric problems, weight loss/gain, nausea, respiratory, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular issues and more (Cortina & Berdahl, 2008). Thus, employees that experience sexual violence in the workplace can experience lower productivity rates, suffer from psychological and physical symptoms, have poor morale, and abandon or leave their jobs. Because of these aforementioned detriments, employers ought to care about stopping and preventing harassment as it is morally wrong and, in many cases, is illegal under federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, n.d.).
Sexual Violence: Employer/Workplace Impacts
There are numerous costs associated with employers ignoring workplace sexual violence. One cost is the immense psychological and physical toll on employees resulting in reduced productivity levels and employee absenteeism, which impedes business performance and profitability (Cortina & Berdahl, 2008). A second cost is repairing and financing employer reputational harm (Sierra et al., 2008). A third cost is resolving sexual violence allegations and charges: settlement and court damages awards can be detrimental to employers. In the news, we see examples of large financial settlements for workplace sexual misconduct like the 21st Century Fox settlement in 2016 when Gretchen Carlson sued Fox News and Roger Ailes for $20 million dollars (Chappell, 2016).
A study by a liability insurance provider found that 19 percent of closed smaller and mid-sized company employment dispute claims resulted in defense and settlement costs averaging $125,000 per claim (Hiscox, 2015). It is evident that no employer would want to be caught up in workplace violence legal battles due to the large financial strain. A fourth cost is increased employee turnover rates, which result in immediate loss of valuable employee experience and knowledge, operational inconveniences along with the cost of interviewing and onboarding new employees (Zauderer, 2002). A recent study, and a staggering statistic on workplace sexual harassment found 80 percent of women who have been sexually harassed in the workplace leave their job within two years (Blackstone et al., 2018). With many women pushed out, starting over, and exiting industries because of workplace sexual violence, this bears a huge burden on the economy.
Sexual Violence in the Workplace: Economic Impacts
It is clear that workplace sexual violence has deleterious effects on employees and employers. Much of the research available around workplace sexual violence and harassment is centered around employees (reporting data, effects of sexual violence, etc.) and employers (mostly focused on the direct and indirect cost to companies), but there is a lack of big picture economic burdens and impacts. However, there is a modicum of research exhibiting women having greater negative economic consequences which contribute to the gender wage gap, women’s underperformance, and lack of advancement in the workplace (National Partnership for Women and Families, 2021).
It would be worth researching the outcomes of reporting sexual violence (e.g., retaliation and consequences) to have a more comprehensive understanding of contributions to women’s disparities in relation to workplace sexual violence. There are several limitations to better understand workplace sexual violence such as a lack being able to identify forms of sexual violence, being able to put dollar figures to the amount of economic loss individuals face from workplace sexual violence, funding limitations, and more.
Vulnerable Populations and Impacts
It is estimated that only 6 percent to 13 percent of individuals file a complaint when they experience sexual violence or harassment in the workplace (Schneider et al., 1997). This means the vast majority of individuals who experience sexual violence and harassment in the workplace do not file a complaint.
There are numerous reasons why individuals do not report or file a complaint, and while sexual violence and harassment can happen to anyone and occur in any industry, there are certain industries and individuals that are more susceptible and vulnerable. Emily Martin, Vice President for Education and Workplace Justice at National Women’s Law Center states, “Part of what sexual harassment is is an expression of power and expression of hostility. When there aren’t women there to do the job, some men think women can’t do the job. When there are fewer women in the workplace, they are more isolated in general.” Martin explains that certain industries are more vulnerable than others including male-dominated industries, service industries, and industries with low-wage jobs (Golshan, 2017). The largest amount of filed sexual harassment claims between 2005 and 2015 came from the food service and accommodation industry followed by retail, manufacturing and healthcare/social assistance (Frye, 2017).
Other vulnerable populations are based on various risk factors that include certain groups of people with disparities, disproportionate power dynamics, and systems that keep these groups vulnerable to harassment. There are several workplace conditions and cultures that are more susceptible to breeding higher rates of sexual harassment such as homogenous workforces made of commonalities that lack diversity creating environments of isolation and pressure among minorities along with differential treatment (Sepler, 2015), workplaces where individuals do not conform to workplace norms or societal stereotypes such as male-dominated workplaces (Cortina & Berdahl, 2008), workforces significantly made with teens and young adults who may lack self-confidence, experience, awareness of laws, rights and workplace norms, and can be taken advantage of by superiors due to power dynamics, inexperience and age disparities (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission & Robbins, 2015).
Additionally, a young workforce may be more likely to engage in harassment due to immaturity and conforming to unhealthy workplace norms and cultures. Workplaces with “high-value” employees can create an unhealthy environment for both employees and employers where “high-value” employees can perceive themselves as exempt from sexual misconduct and may make employers resistant in taking action against misconduct as to not expropriate the economic value of a “high-value” employee (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission & Robbins, 2015).
Other workplaces with especially high-risk factors include workplaces with large power disparities (Warren & U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2015), customer service-oriented workplaces (Durana et al., 2018), physically isolated workplaces (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission & Robbins, 2015), monotonous or low-intensity workplaces (Sepler, 2015), and workplaces where alcohol consumption is encouraged (Bacharach et al., 2007). In essence, vulnerable populations and people often experience intersectional disadvantages with large power disparities.
It is evident that most workplaces are susceptible to employees experiencing sexual violence and harassment, which can leave employers vulnerable to liability and legal risk unless more prevention strategies and policies are adopted on micro and macro levels to decrease harassment.
Current Approaches to Reduce Sexual Violence and Harassment in the Workplace
There have been several ideas proposed and recommendations adopted to combat and reduce sexual violence and harassment in the workplace. But how effective are these approaches? 98 percent of all organizations have sexual harassment policies (University of Missouri-Columbia, 2016). This raises the question, why is sexual harassment still such a prevalent issue if workplace sexual harassment policies are in place?
According to research from Magley et al. (1999), many individuals did not label certain forms of unwelcome sexually based behaviors as “sexual harassment” even if they viewed the behavior as problematic or offensive, but when specific acts of sexual harassment were defined in surveying, reports of harassment rose nearly 60 percent. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in recent years have helped create an environment for people to speak up about their experiences of sexual violence and sexual harassment. Other people sharing their experiences of sexual violence and harassment has helped put labels to misconduct and crimes where others may not have been able to define the same or similar misconduct or crimes as “sexual harassment” until it was defined by someone else.
Some companies have adopted sexual harassment seminars and trainings with the idea of preventing harassment, but research from Feldblum and Lipnic (2016) found these seminars and trainings are not effective as a prevention tool because the focus has been on organizations avoiding legal liability. Employers and organizations have a legal obligation and responsibility to its employees to create and maintain a workplace without sexual harassment. Workplaces allowing sexual violence and harassment to flourish pay high prices with low productivity, low employee morale and can face expensive lawsuits (Barreiro, n.d.). Investing in prevention rather than a treatment approach is a much more cost-effective solution for both employees and employers. There are several approaches on micro and macro levels that employees and employers can take to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace.
Current Macro Approaches to Reduce Sexual Violence and Harassment in the Workplace
On a macro level, there are policies in place to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace. Under federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), workplace sexual harassment is illegal and considered a form of sex discrimination, but these national laws only apply to employers with fifteen employees or more (Equal Rights Advocates, n.d.). However, U.S. states may have their own unique or additional laws that expand on federal law. For example, Ohio sexual harassment laws under Ohio Revised Code Sec. 4112.01 apply to public and private employers with four or more employees (Legislative Service Commission, n.d.).
California has additional laws including the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) that applies to all California employers and protects all workers including interns, contractors and volunteers. FEHA requires employers to respond and take steps to prevent sexual harassment along with mandating employers with five or more employees to provide sexual harassment prevention training to supervisors and employees at least once every two years (Equal Rights Advocates, n.d.). Comparing Ohio and California sexual harassment workplace laws, we can see a large discrepancy in prevention and employee protection. Additionally, on a macro level, there are several national organizations such as 9to5, Equal Rights Advocates, and TIME’S UP that engage policymakers and advocate for changing laws and/or creating policy-wide change that benefit vulnerable groups within the workplace.
Current Micro Approaches to Reduce Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
On a micro level, there are efforts in place to reduce and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. One prevention approach from employers, as mentioned earlier, is creating workplace sexual harassment policies. Unfortunately, data shows that sexual harassment policies in and of themselves do not equate to preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. In fact, more than 70 percent of men and women who experience workplace harassment do not report internally or formally, which makes reporting the least common response when harassment occurs, despite there being policies in place (Cortina & Berdahl, 2008).
Another method to reducing and preventing sexual harassment is employers adopting prevention strategies from a top-down approach. Workplace culture has the greatest impact on whether the culture prevents sexual harassment or allows it to flourish (Feldblum & Lipnic, 2016). Other approaches on a micro level come from various organizations in an educational manner to promote healthier workplaces free of sexual harassment. TIME’S UP Now advocates for a society free of gender-based discrimination in the workplace in a three-pronged approach: changing workplace culture, changing companies to take a stand for fairness, and changing laws and policies that don’t protect women (Time’s Up Now, n.d.).
Employees may also take an active role in the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace. Employees should have an understanding of their rights and their workplace policy(ies) on sexual harassment, observe the workplace culture and examine it for sexual harassment behavior, examine their own behaviors to prevent misconduct, and confront sexual harassers when they are bystanders (University of Minnesota Human Rights Library, n.d.).
There are numerous ways to prevent sexual violence and harassment in the workplace. As recommendations and policy priorities are discussed in the next section, it will be important to address barriers that exist within these recommendations in order to overcome these obstacles to effectively promote healthier workplaces free from sexual violence and harassment.
Opinion of Recommendations and Policy Needs to Reduce Sexual Violence in the Workplace to Promote Employee Safety and Wellbeing
There are several recommendations and policies that can be implemented among individuals and workplaces, and we must seek to address the aforementioned barriers of reducing sexual violence in the workplace by answering the following questions:
- How can we reduce ignorance when it comes to sexual violence?
- How can we encourage reporting?
- How can we promote and ensure more accountability?
Below are recommendations and policy needs to answer the above-mentioned questions.
Recommendations to Reduce the Ignorance of Sexual Violence
- More state and federal funding should be allocated for educational and awareness campaigns.
- Anti-harassment/violence advocacy groups and organizations should create outreach campaigns targeting workplace leadership to promote the compelling case to invest in sexual violence and harassment-free workplace cultures.
- Workplaces should specify forms of sexual violence and harassment in their policies.
- Workplaces should hold trainings and seminars about workplace respect and bystander intervention.
- Workplace policy should consider continuing education requirements for anti-harassment/violence.
Recommendations to Encourage Reporting Workplace Sexual Violence and Harassment
- Workplace policies should have clear no-tolerance harassment policies along with reporting procedures and retaliation policies to protect those seeking to make a report.
- Workplace policies should provide reporting options (internally and externally) and detail procedures to report sexual violence and/or harassment, observed sexual violence and/or harassment, and mitigate reporting retaliation.
- Workplaces should strive to keep individuals who report anonymous to mitigate reporting retaliation.
- Workplaces should take all sexual violence and harassment complaints and reporting seriously, ensure there are adequate resources for timely and thorough investigations, and swiftly, appropriately and consistently discipline behavior when sexual violence and/or harassment is substantiated.
- Workplaces should continue or adopt anti-harassment training seminars and focus on employee wellbeing, respect, and accountability for inappropriate behavior instead of focusing on reducing legal liability.
Recommendations to Promote and Ensure More Accountability in the Workplace
- Workplace leaders should communicate and demonstrate continual commitment to an anti-harassment workplace culture.
- Workplaces should document all sexual harassment/violence complaints, evaluate offender and victim risk factors while ensuring there are procedures in place to reduce those risk factors.
- Federal and state levels should provide more funding and research for the economic impact of workplace sexual violence.
- Workplaces should ensure there is consistency in disciplining sexual violence/harassment and that appropriate action is taken based on investigational findings.
- Workplaces should provide anonymous employee surveys from unbiased, third-party software to evaluate harassment prevalence, workplace safety, etc. and use this surveying and data in an ongoing basis to assess harassment prevalence along with solutions to mitigate and address harassment.
- A top-down approach should be modeled for workplace respect and anti-harassment.
- Workplaces should reward the intervention of workplace harassment in employee performance reviews and take disciplinary action to those who enable(d) workplace harassment.
- Workplaces should adopt equity, diversity and inclusion strategies and have a focus on the prevention of harassment.
Sexual violence and harassment is a pervasive problem that is preventable. Eradicating and preventing workplace sexual violence and harassment must be taken seriously as it incurs a detrimental ripple effect on individuals, employers, and the economy. How will you be part of the solution to prevent and eradicate sexual violence in the workplace to promote a safer and healthier workplace for all?
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