Workplace sexual harassment is a major societal issue, which negatively affects companies and individuals involved. It is defined as “unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated” (Australian Human Rights Commission, n.d.). While human rights advocates have been trying to increase the awareness of the issue for decades, with the emergence of the #MeToo movement in recent years, it has received a significantly increased amount of public attention. This paper aims to examine the repercussions of sexual harassment at work, reporting rates and outcomes, and the impact of #MeToo on public perception of the problem.
Health and Career Outcomes of Sexual Harassment at Work
Numerous studies on sexual harassment prove that it negatively impacts the physical and mental state of the employees, as well as their personal relationships. A study of middle-aged women in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, discovered that sexual misconduct victims had a higher occurrence of hypertension and clinical insomnia (Thurston et al., 2019). Additionally, the researchers established that sexual assault targets often suffered from anxiety and clinical depression (Thurston et al., 2019). Another study discovered that women who endured sexual harassment at work had a significantly higher probability of having suicidal thoughts and PTSD symptoms (Hom et al., 2017). Consequently, mental health issues associated with sexual misconduct can lead to problems in the victims’ personal lives. Chinese scholars found that hospitality sector employees who reported being harassed at work were more likely to exhibit family undermining behaviors (Zhu et al., 2019). Moreover, their work performance and relations were also negatively affected (Zhu et al., 2019). Overall, these studies prove that sexual misconduct victims can experience significant long-lasting problems in their professional and personal lives.
The correlation between sexual harassment incidents at work and the career decisions of the victims is particularly striking. McLaughlin et al. (2017) established that “targets of sexual harassment were 6.5 times as likely as nontargets to change jobs” (p. 344). Many women prefer quitting their jobs to reporting sexual misconduct because they do not believe they can change the order of things or deem it not worthy of an effort. Often they can choose to cut their weekly hours or accept a less lucrative job offer from another company to avoid dealing with the inappropriate behavior of their colleagues (McLaughlin et al., 2017). In the sciences, women are forced to leave research projects, change their field, or decline promotions to avoid working with the offender (Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2018). The research shows that while most women start to earn more during young adulthood, earnings of harassment targets tend to stall or decline (McLaughlin et al., 2017). Hence, such experiences can negatively influence victims’ career opportunities and outcomes.
Besides having a significant impact on individuals’ lives, sexual misconduct cases can lead to serious losses for organizations. According to the U. S. Merit Systems Protection Board (2018) report, the employees who have to deal with sexual harassment are less productive and tend to take sick leave more often. Moreover, companies can face mounting expenses because of legal costs and increased employee turnover associated with the issue (Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2018). Therefore, implementing effective sexual harassment prevention policies could prove to be highly beneficial for most businesses.
Sexual Misconduct Reporting Issues
However, management sometimes lacks the motivation to address the problems because they fail to recognize the scale of the issue. As previously noted, the victims often refrain from reporting the perpetrator due to different factors. In the Australian study, respondents cited fear of missing out on career opportunities, lack of knowledge about the reporting process, peer pressure, and emotional disengagement as the reasons for not reporting sexual misconduct (Llewelyn et al., 2019). Foster and Fullagar (2018) add that some might be reluctant to submit a formal report if they are unsure that the harasser is punished. Their concerns are justified, as management can be unwilling to take action against the perpetrator in many cases.
Indeed, the research shows that organizations often fail to react appropriately to reports of sexual misconduct. According to the U. S. Merit Systems Protection Board (2008) report, only 8% of the workers who informed their management about the incidents indicated that the harasser was punished. Victims often face dismissive or blaming responses from the senior staff, telling them that they should be less sensitive or that they are somehow responsible for the incident (Llewelyn et al., 2019). In some cases, respondents indicate that their manager fails to find time to address their issue, or the solutions suggested are inadequate (Llewelyn et al., 2019). Overall, the research shows that a lack of support and unclear policies can largely discourage victims of sexual harassment from reporting the incidents.
Impact of the #MeToo movement
The scholars believe that self-esteem also plays a pivotal role in the decision to report the harasser. Foster and Fullagar (2018) found that many victims who did not report sexual misconduct were worried about protecting their reputation. #MeToo movement encouraged many of them to overcome their fear and go public with their stories. Is is often praised for raising awareness about the issue and exposing the scope of the problem. According to Levy and Mattsson (2020), “awareness can affect behavior by decreasing the stigma associated with reporting, by allowing individuals to coordinate and provide corroborating evidence, or by aggregating information and encouraging people to report as a form of protest” (p. 25). Indeed, the number of sexual misconduct reports has increased significantly after the movement’s breakthrough in 2017. In Canada, officials witnessed a 65% surge in reported sexual assaults in business relationships during the last months of 2017 (Rotenberg & Cotter, 2018). While #MeToo has largely unearthed the issue for the general public and empowered many victims to speak out, the critics of the movement note that it has failed to adequately address the problem in its entirety.
Despite #MeToo being generally perceived as a social media phenomenon, the influence of traditional media sources on public opinion should not be underestimated. With the majority of the coverage being positive, the researchers pointed at several disturbing trends, which could undermine the activists’ efforts. For instance, De Benedictis et al. (2019) note that the British newspapers focused on fashion and entertainment industries, while the fields most affected by the issue, such as hospitality, have barely received any attention. In other words, the main problem of the media coverage was that it failed the present workplace sexual harassment as a systematic societal issue, focusing on sensationalizing individual celebrity stories instead.
Other researchers state that #MeToo has narrowed the public perception of the problem to quid pro quo type of harassment, which accounts only for a small percentage of all cases. In the Norwegian study, researchers discovered “a bias toward prototypical types of sexual harassment, as people perceive these more as sexual harassment compared to less prototypical but equally harmful types” (Kessler et al., 2020, p. 1271). Hence, many people do not consider toxic environment in the workplace a serious issue. According to Jacobson and Eaton (2018), “observers of quid-pro-quo harassment are more likely to respond assertively than observers of hostile environment harassment” (p. 48). Overall, the research shows that while raising awareness is crucial to start a public discussion, a holistic, scientific approach is required to adequately address the issue in its complexity.
Prevention of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
A significant amount of studies in the past years focused on finding the most efficient sexual harassment prevention methods. While most US companies have anti-harassment policies, underreporting remains a serious issue (Zugelder et al., 2018). Several studies have found that a zero-tolerance policy, as opposed to a standard one, increases the chances of less severe incidents being reported by bystanders (Jacobson and Eaton, 2018). Numerous researchers also emphasize the importance of reviewing ineffective harassment prevention training programs at organizations. Zugelder et al. (2018) state that most of these programs are designed to prevent liability rather than incidents. The researchers believe that training should be conducted in groups and include employees of all levels (Zugelder et al., 2018; Foster & Fullagar, 2018). Each worker should perform an individual analysis of different scenarios and discuss it in a group to increase awareness and understanding of inappropriate behavioral patterns (Zugelder et al., 2018). Overall, a zero-tolerance policy and proper anti-harassment training are considered some of the most effective tools in reducing sexual misconduct in the workplace.
Suggestions for Further Research
While increased public attention to the issue has spurred many research projects in the field in recent years, some aspects have received a limited amount of attention so far. Most studies focus on female victims because they become targets of sexual misconduct more often. However, male workers also suffer from harassment, and while some of the studies include male participants, the sample sizes are usually very small and unreliable. The field could also benefit from increasing the number of studies on sexual aggression towards the most vulnerable groups such as LGBTQ+, racial minorities, people with disabilities, and so forth. Another possible direction for future research is the analysis of harassment prevention training effectiveness. In light of the #MeToo movement, many companies reconsidered their policies and training programs. It is essential to examine the effect of these changes to determine the most effective methods and update the recommendations for the organizations accordingly.
Sexual harassment in the workplace negatively affects individuals’ health and career outcomes and significantly increases employers’ expenses. #MeToo movement exposed the real scope of the issue and forced many organizations to reconsider their policies. However, despite the changes in corporate culture, studies suggest that the problem of underreporting sexual misconduct persists. Most experts believe that zero-tolerance policies and new training programs can have a positive impact on the workplace environment; however, further research is required to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes in the long term.
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