What Is Sexual Harassment, and Why Is It So Hard to Report?

Sexual harassment isn’t uncommon — it is in fact endemic, especially in male-dominated fields like tech. (If you don’t believe how common it is, ask any five women if they have a sexual harassment story.) Perhaps this crisis stems from, among other things, a lack of understanding of what sexual harassment actually is. That ignorance makes it hard to pin down and stop.

According to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC), sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Note that Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. If your company is smaller, “most states have a parallel local civil rights agency that handles claims,” says attorney Phillip R. Maltin.)

sexual harassment
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Sexual harassment can include “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” says the EEOC. But harassment doesn’t have to be explicitly sexual to fit the definition. Making offensive comments about a person’s sex, such as a disparaging remark about all women, also fits the bill.

Sexual harassment can fall into two categories, Maltin says: quid pro quo and a hostile work environment. According to Maltin, quid pro quo is “when a supervisor makes unwanted sexual advances to a subordinate or engages in other unwanted verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” and then makes benefits like pay, raises, good shifts, or bonuses contingent on the employee going along with the advances. A work environment becomes hostile if the harassment is “severe, widespread, or persistent [enough] that a reasonable person in the worker’s position would have considered the environment hostile or abusive.”

But what is considered to be offensive to one person might seem appropriate to another. “It is often difficult to tell when an inappropriate working environment crosses over into being illegal sexual harassment,” says attorney Mamta Ahluwalia. Because of this gray area, “the legal challenge is that the inappropriate conduct has to be sufficiently severe to constitute sexual harassment,” Ahluwalia explains. “For example, where one inappropriate joke may not constitute sexual harassment, six or seven might.”

Coming Forward
Workplace culture has hardly caught up with the law, and reporting sexual harassment is fraught.

First we have to take into account the most frequent victims of sexual harassment. While people of all genders are sexually harassed, the majority of victims are younger women, oftentimes in lower-level positions, and frequently supervised by the opposite sex, according to a report from Vanderbilt Law School. Female victims in male-dominated occupations are vulnerable (especially in the military). And you don’t have to be an employee to be sexually harassed in the workplace — job applicants can also be victims. Harassers and their victims can be any gender, and contrary to popular myth, same-sex harassment is possible (although it is much less frequent than opposite-sex harassment).

"Stopping sexual harassment isn't up to one person coming forward. It's about company culture on the whole."  

Research shows that most harassers are male and typically outrank their victims in the company’s hierarchy or are on the same level as them. Harassment is especially prevalent in organizations with “larger power differentials in the hierarchical structure, and in male-dominated structures like the military,” according to the Vanderbilt report.

These power structures create an environment in which sexual harassment can run rampant — it keeps the victims from having adequate recourse. They may fear retaliation, and unfortunately, that fear is often founded. Of the 10-plus lawyers I spoke to in my research, each had seen this play out.

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