The Reality of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Earlier this week, my boss sent me a link that made me pause: “You Won't Believe How Many Women in Tech Say They've Faced Sexual Harassment.” Because of my job in digital media, I spend most of the day online scrolling through headlines. This “You Won’t Believe…” construction is fairly common. In general, the payoff is that yes, you will believe it, and it’s not usually worth a read. But I clicked.

Here’s what I learned: In a study of 200-plus women in tech, 60 percent of respondents said they’d experienced unwanted sexual advances at work, and of that number, 65 percent said that at least of one these advances had come from a superior.

sexual harassment
Florida Keys–Public Libraries

Perhaps these numbers shock you.

They don’t shock me. In fact, I can’t think of a single female friend of mine who hasn’t dealt with sexual harassment in the workplace. My friend Molly* calls it an “occupational hazard” of being a woman with a job.

Keep in mind that these numbers are probably quite low when we look at all women in the workforce, given the advantages and relative power of the women surveyed. According to a report from Vanderbilt Law School, the people who are most vulnerable to sexual harassment are younger women in lower-level jobs. The women from the tech study skew older and more powerful: 70 percent are at least 40 years old. One quarter of the women have C-level jobs, and 11 percent are company founders.

Sexual harassment is in every industry, and it’s hardly addressed with adequate action. After polling some friends, anecdotal evidence points to the idea that sexual harassment is treated as a workplace annoyance akin to a loud buzzing sound from the heater — something that everyone agrees is awful, but shrugs off.

Indeed, of the women who reported their harassment in the study of tech employees, 60 percent said they were unsatisfied with the result of reporting. And 39 percent of the women surveyed said they didn’t report the harassment at all out of fear that their careers would suffer.

Failing to adequately deal with workplace sexual harassment comes with real consequences. Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, says that workplace sexual harassment can cause “feelings of anger, fear, helplessness, worthlessness, and hopelessness.” She calls the experience “traumatic.”

"Sexual harassment is treated as a workplace annoyance akin to a loud buzzing sound from the heater — something that everyone agrees is awful, but shrugs off."  

Clinical psychologist Dr. Perpetua Neo echoes the sentiment, saying that workplace harassment can lead to trauma (Contrary to the idea that big events are the sole root of post-traumatic stress disorder, a study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry shows that life events we wouldn’t automatically call traumatic can result in PTSD symptoms.) And the experience itself might trigger stress hormones like cortisol, which can lead to physiological symptoms like a racing heart and shallow breathing, Neo says. This is a great recipe for a panic attack.

Emotional ramifications aside, the Vanderbilt University report argues that sexual harassment leads to “higher absenteeism, less commitment to the organization, and a higher likelihood of quitting one’s job.” For example, a study of U.S. government workers showed that 21 percent of employees who had been sexually harassed became less productive. If a company is not moved to foster a culture that protects its employees based on common human decency, at the very least companies should look at the impact on the bottom line: Turnover costs money, and happy employees are good for business.

As for the 60 percent of women in tech surveyed who have been sexually harassed at work? I’m not surprised, but I am angry.

I’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace, probably like most women you know. I was young, and I did say something, and nothing happened. I had panic attacks, and I lost sleep and weight. For six months after I finally quit the job I would start crying with no provocation, or feel like if I didn't get out of the room I was in and get some fresh air, I would die.

When I tell this story, someone invariably asks: “Why didn’t you sue him? Why did you answer his calls?” I was 22. It was my job to answer his calls. I didn’t want to get fired. It was not my fault.

I was traumatized then. Now, I’m fucking livid.

"There is a system for keeping women from succeeding, and it works."  

When we talk about how women should come forward, we take the onus off the harassers and ignore the reality of speaking up, which could include retaliation or professional ramifications.

When we talk about how women simply don’t join tech companies and say that women aren’t studying STEM fields enough, we obfuscate the actual truth: Plenty of women are studying STEM. They just don’t want to join, or are unable to rise in, an industry that’s so hostile.

To be clear, I don’t see any evidence that suggests the tech industry is more biased against women than, say, Wall Street, the military, or sports. When we bemoan the lack of women in these industries, or in any industry, we jump over the systemic issue and place the blame on its victims.

There is a system for keeping women from succeeding, and it works: Create a culture so hopelessly biased and destructive that women will want to leave. That same survey illuminated the ever-present unconscious bias that most women experience:

  • 88 percent of respondents have watched someone ask a male coworker a question that should have been addressed to them instead
  • 80 percent have received demeaning comments from male coworkers
  • 84 percent have been told they were “too ambitious”
  • 66 percent report being left out of important social or networking events, hurting their ability to move up

And, in a move that any woman can relate to, almost half reported being asked to take notes or order food, soft tasks that male colleagues are not required to do. These instances of bias are not sexual harassment, but it’s all connected. When women are not taken seriously in the workplace, harassment isn’t seen as a real slight, like fighting with a male colleague would be.

I don't know how to fix it.

According the Vanderbilt report, instances of sexual harassment of women do decline in companies run by women. So while the need for more female leaders is ever present, it doesn't change the fact that there are more CEOs named John than female CEOs in the Fortune 500. But we need to figure out something, because what we’re doing now isn’t working.

*Name changed.

You Might Also Like:
5 Essential Strategies to Being a Feminist Boss
Why Men Should Keep it Zipped
8 Reasons We Need Women Leaders