Sexual harassment remains a common occupational hazard for women. It is estimated that over half of all women will experience some form of sexual harassment during college and/or their working lives. Women in male-dominated workplaces, in blue-collar jobs, or who are marginalized due to their race, sexual orientation, or social class often experience higher rates of sexual harassment than the general population. Although the vast majority of all sexual harassment cases involve men harassing women, there are also cases of men being sexually harassed. These cases usually involve same-sex harassment, where a man is targeted as a form of hazing or for perceived violations of hypermasculine gender role stereotypes.
Sexual harassment is both prevalent and harmful for targets and the organizations within which they work. Once harassed, individuals, whether male or female, report a variety of negative outcomes related to their work, health, and psychological well-being. Across a spectrum of outcome measures, harassed men and women fair more poorly than those without a history of harassment. Specifically, research has documented detriment to the job satisfaction, work productivity, supervisor satisfaction, absenteeism, and turnover rates of harassed employees—the costs of which can reach billions of dollars annually for federal and private institutions. The psychological and health-related costs are equally high, with targets reporting numerous symptoms, such as depression, posttraumatic stress symptoms, and health problems following harassment. Despite the contributions of individual and sociocultural factors, organizations have many strategies at their disposal to reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment within their institutions. These efforts will not only protect employees from the harm of harassment, but also limit employers’ legal liability. Ultimately, an equitable work environment that is free of harassment benefits everyone within the institution.
Sexual Harassment Definition
In 1980, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission identified sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination that commonly manifests as either a hostile work environment or quid pro quo. Hostile work environment refers to an environment where sexual harassment is pervasive, and an employee believes that the general workplace milieu has become hostile and/or the ability to do his or her job has been compromised. Quid pro quo can be a single or a recurrent event(s) where an employee is pressured to engage in sexual behaviors due to job-related threats or benefits.
Social scientists define sexual harassment as any unwanted gender-based behavior that is offensive to the target, threatens the target’s well-being, and/or overwhelms his or her coping abilities. Subtypes of sexual harassment have also been identified. Gender harassment includes a variety of sexist comments or behaviors that are often nonsexual in nature, such as asserting that all women are incompetent or unable to perform certain occupational duties. Unwanted sexual attention includes sexual comments, gestures, or physical contact, such as repeated requests for dates or attempts to kiss or touch the target. Sexual coercion is equivalent to the legal definition of quid pro quo and includes any job-related threats or benefits that are used to coerce sexual interaction, such as promises that an employee will be promoted or fired based on sexual compliance. Finally, contrapower sexual harassment involves any form of sexual harassment perpetrated by a subordinate and targeting a superior.
The majority of research on sexual harassment has been conducted with heterosexual, middle-class
White women, with little attention to diversity across these domains. Theorists assert that being both people of color and women places women of color at heightened risk for harassment (also known as double jeopardy). Research supports these theories, finding that compared to White women, women of color report being sexually harassed more often, experience harassment that is more severe and more sexualized (e.g., gender harassment versus unwanted sexual attention), and commonly describe racialized sexual harassment, where their sexual harassment is infused with race-based epithets or stereotypes. Similarly, studies document that lesbian women and economically vulnerable women are also subjected to more frequent and severe harassment than that reported in the general population. Women who are marginalized in multiple domains, such as lesbian women of color, are at even higher risk.
Effects on Work, Health, and Psychological Well-Being
Sexual harassment is associated with a variety of negative consequences for targets. For example, compared to women who have not been sexually harassed, targets of harassment report increased absenteeism and job turnover and lower job satisfaction, work productivity, supervisor satisfaction, and organizational commitment.
Harassed men and women also demonstrate negative changes in almost every domain of physical health, including altered appetite, difficulty sleeping, increased headaches, gastrointestinal distress, and reproductive health concerns. Psychologically, they also report increased depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and disordered eating symptoms. Similar to reactions to other forms of trauma, a subset of harassed employees engage in pathological coping such as increased binge eating and alcohol and drug use, all of which can exacerbate the consequences of other mental health concerns. Further, the negative effects of harassment in each of these domains may persist for years after the harassment itself has ended.
Individual, Sociocultural, and Organizational Causes
Sexual harassment is the result of a variety of individual, social, and organizational factors. There is considerable variability across men with some being more likely to sexually harass than others. Those who sexually harass others, compared to men who do not engage in harassment, frequently score lower on measures of empathy and higher on measures of sex-role stereotyping and rape myth acceptance. However, it is important to note that the development of these traits is not independent from sociocultural factors. In societies where women are devalued, sex-role stereotypes proliferate, gender-roles are imbalanced, and definitions of femininity and masculinity are separate and rigidly held, men are more likely to endorse sex-role stereotypes and rape myths. Concomitantly, the likelihood that sexual harassment will occur increases.
Organizations also differ in the likelihood that their employees will participate in sexual harassment, regardless of their individual predilections. Specifically, the job-gender context of a work group and the organization’s climate are powerful predictors of whether or not sexual harassment will occur. The job-gender context is determined by the ratio of men to women in a work group and by the extent to which the job is traditionally classified as a male or female occupation. Organizational climate refers to the general milieu within a workplace. Women in organizations that are tolerant of sexual harassment (e.g., demeaning attitudes toward women are modeled by superiors, harassers are not reprimanded) report much higher rates of sexual harassment than women in organizations that denounce gender inequities and sexual harassment in particular.
How Organizations Can Stop Sexual Harassment
Independent of the expenses related to litigation, sexual harassment costs organizations millions of dollars every year due to factors such as increased absenteeism, job turnover, and reduced productivity. In response, organizations have initiated several strategies to reduce sexual harassment and limit their legal liability. Having a strong antiharassment policy, requiring sexual harassment training, investigating sexual harassment complaints quickly and efficiently, and enforcing penalties when harassment does occur can limit employers’ legal risk by demonstrating that they have exercised reasonable care to prevent, investigate, and remedy sexual harassment. These practices have been shown to reduce harassment within an organization, reduce negative outcomes for harassed employees, decrease the likelihood of an employee initiating litigation, and reduce the organization’s legal liability.
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