Sexual harassment in the workplace encompasses all unwelcome behavior that relates to sex, including inappropriate sexual remarks, requests for sexual favors, and sexual advances. Understanding workplace sexual harassment can help employees identify and report unacceptable behavior. Reporting illegal sexual harassment to employers and federal authorities can help improve the safety and environment of workplaces across the United States.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is divided into two categories: hostile work environment and quid pro quo:
Hostile work environment sexual harassment creates an intimidating work environment. It includes situations that cause an employee to feel emotionally distressed at work because of a situation or conversation related to sex, sexual orientation, or gender.
Examples of sexual harassment hostile work environment include:
Quid pro quo sexual harassment involves the exchange of sexual favors for benefits or to prevent a threat. This type of sexual harassment usually happens between people with different levels of authority, such as between a supervisor and a junior employee.
Examples of quid pro quo sexual harassment include exchanging sexual favors for:
Both types of workplace sexual harassment are harmful to the victim. Raising awareness of what constitutes sexual harassment may help combat the issue.
While sexual harassment in the workplace is often intentional, sometimes it can occur accidentally. When employees do not understand what actions fall under the sexual harassment umbrella, they may be more prone to making offhanded comments, remarks, or jokes that can leave other employees feeling sexually harassed.
The perpetrator's intent to harass is less important than the potentially harmful environment resulting from the action. Employees can attempt to justify their words or actions by claiming it was "just a joke" or "not meant seriously." However, these explanations do not qualify as valid legal defenses.
Annual training is necessary for staff to understand what is considered sexual harassment. One survey suggests that 32% of employees are unaware their jokes could count as sexual harassment. Preventing sexual harassment and raising awareness can create a safer space for a company's employees. It can also help employees feel secure in understanding what does and does not constitute sexual harassment.
In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled on the landmark case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. They held that workplace harassment was prohibited under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Since that decision, the U.S. work environment has advanced dramatically, but sexual harassment in the workplace remains an ongoing issue.
The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSBP) has studied sexual harassment in the government workplace since 1979. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) Select Task Force of the Study of Harassment in the Workplace has examined the issue since 2015. Using reputable statistics from these and other organizations allows researchers to better understand the dynamics of sexual harassment in the American workplace.
The EEOC received over 27,000 sexual harassment charges between fiscal year (FY) 2018 and 2021. Between FY 2014 and 2021, sexual harassment charges remained fairly stable, with a noticeable rise after the #MeToo campaign that went viral in late 2017.
The EEOC received the following sexual harassment charges:
This type of data reveals trends related to sexual harassment, such as the prevailing demographics and characteristics of victims and perpetrators of workplace sexual harassment.
It may not be surprising that gender and sexual orientation play a strong role in sexual harassment. Analysts can extrapolate strong gender and sexual orientation trends from the available data.
Nearly seven of ten LGBT workers have experienced sexual harassment at work. Additionally, 12% of LGBT women report being raped or sexually assaulted at work. LGBT women are almost twice as likely to report sexual assault and nearly twice as likely to be sexually assaulted or raped compared to men.
Approximately two-thirds of LGBT victims chose not to report the sexual harassment to their employer for the following reasons:
Women file a disproportionate number of sexual harassment claims with the EEOC. Between FY 2018 and 2021, women filed 62.2% of the total harassment charges and 78.2% of all sexual harassment charges. In fact, between 54% and 81% of women claim to experience some level of workplace sexual harassment.
Female victims say they were sexually harassed more often by men (97%) than women (13%).
Across industries, women are more likely to be sexually harassed at work than their male counterparts. This includes industries that are known for their higher rates of sexual harassment in the workplace statistics. For example, women are this much more likely than men to be sexually harassed in the following industries:
According to the EEOC, between FY 2018 and 2021, men filed 37.8% of all harassment charges and 21.8% of sexual harassment charges.
Male victims say they were sexually harassed more frequently by women (68%) than men (57%).
Although men are less likely to be harassed than women, men still report significant sexual harassment in certain industries. For example, the following percentages of men experience sexual harassment:
Any sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Workplace sexual harassment trends can also be seen by location. For example, women are more likely to experience sexual harassment in certain locations.
Women have reported sexual harassment in the following locations:
This means that women who work in rural locales are more than 40% more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace compared to their suburban counterparts.
Additionally, certain states have higher instances of sexual harassment charges. According to the EEOC, the states with the most adult sexual harassment charges per 10,000 population account for 24.5% of all sexual harassment charges in the country.
These states, and their number of sexual harassment charges per 10,000 population, include:
Certain industries are notorious for increased sexual harassment in workplace statistics. Between 2005 and 2015, 14% of all harassment charges originated from workers in the accommodation and food services industry, which is significantly higher than the industry's total share of employment. Within the restaurant industry, 71% of female employees are victimized at least once.
The following is a list of the percentage of employees who have experienced workplace sexual harassment by industry and gender:
Workplace sexual harassment is more likely to be perpetrated by an authority figure within the workplace. Senior employees accounted for 72% of workplace sexual harassment. Reporting the sexual harassment of senior and authority figures can be more intimidating, as they are generally more powerful and often have more allies due to their longer tenure.
Workplace sexual harassment statistics are often closely associated with other employment issues, such as race and retaliation.
The percentage of workplace sexual harassment charges filed with race charges are:
Workplace sexual harassment charges are also frequently filed with retaliation charges. Of the 27,291 workplace sexual harassment charges filed between 2018 and 2021, 43.5% were filed concurrently with a retaliation charge.
Between 2018 and 2021, the five most common issues to be charged concurrently with a workplace sexual harassment charge include:
Workplace sexual harassment negatively impacts companies and employees. However, employees are more likely to suffer mental health concerns following sexual harassment. This can lead employees to leave their jobs or require additional time off work, which can impact businesses financially.
Different people react differently to sexual harassment. The following includes men's and women's responses to sexual harassment:
Approximately 50% of women who have experienced workplace sexual harassment claim that the event hurt their careers.
Some workplace sexual harassment statistics imply that companies suffer alongside victims. Some estimate that sexual harassment costs companies approximately $2.6 billion in productivity and an additional $0.9 billion in other costs.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is never acceptable. However, raising awareness of sexual harassment within the company can help combat its impact, as some employees may lack a thorough understanding of the topic. Sexual harassment impacts certain demographics more than others, but anyone can be at risk of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Although workplace sexual harassment weighs most heavily on its victims, employers also should be aware of the high costs sexual harassment can levy against a business. It can cause long-lasting harm to victims and companies in the form of mental health, career opportunities, and billions of dollars in business costs.