Sexual Harassment Is a Huge Problem — So Why Aren’t We Doing Anything About It?

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.

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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.

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