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The Disturbing Statistics About Sexual Harassment in the Workplace—and What To Do About It

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Everyone and their mother has had to sit through the workplace version of sex ed, and as it turns out, not many have been paying attention — perhaps because they think they’ve heard it all before.

What about the fact that nearly half of all women in the workforce have been sexually harassed? Remember, those statistics represent only those women brave enough to come forward.

It can happen to anyone – the intern or the boss. Sexual harassment is not about obtaining an object of sexual attraction — it’s about power. Harassers are typically more interested in asserting their authority over others. Usual characterizations of women experiencing harassment portray male supervisors harassing female subordinates. However, power-threat theories show women in authority are more frequent targets of sexual harassment. Male harassers use inappropriate sexual behavior to put women “in their place.”

No matter if targets are women or men, harassers seek to disempower and humiliate the target.

How One Woman Fought Back With Ferocity

As one of the nation’s most recognized anchors, Gretchen Carlson has seen and reported on much, moving from a political reporter in Virginia to a national reporter on CBS’s “The Saturday Early Show.” As a CBS News correspondent, Carlson covered the Timothy McVeigh execution, the G-8 Summit in Italy and 9-11 at the World Trade Center, not to mention produced a domestic violence 30-part series that won many awards.

Carlson knows what it is to fight back against sexual harassment in the workplace and advocates for women to fight back, too. She was one of a number of women professionals who went public with their sexual harassment stories and were categorized as victims. Carlson was raised with a strong work ethic and views herself a strong woman, but she felt uncomfortable playing the role of victim.

Carlson has been sexually harassed on more than one occasion multiple times over her career, a fact that many women can relate to. At her first television job, Carlson ended alone with a cameraman in the news van, and the conversation shifted from normal chatter to unwanted advances, as the harasser wanted to know what she felt when he slipped the microphone under her shirt, touching her breasts.

In 1989, after Carlson was crowned Miss America, a nationally recognized television executive decided to shove his tongue down her throat in a shared vehicle, and a few weeks after that, another famous publicist decided he had the authority to shove her head into his crotch, making it difficult to breathe.

After sharing her story publically and continuing to speak, Carlson hopes more women will come forward and speak up. Unfortunately, aside from being labeled a victim, many women don’t want to be labeled troublemakers. There’s a fear that she won’t be believed in the game of he said, she said.

Low-Income Workers Targeted by Harassers Are in a Catch-22

Women in highly visible and high-paying industries are victims of sexual harassment, but nearly two in five women in fast food are sexually harassed, according to one Hart Research report. Nearly 42 percent react passively, because what else can you do when you need a job for survival?

These female employees accept the harassment since they can’t afford to lose what work they have, and only 8 percent of those surveyed quit their jobs because of harassment. Some worked around the issue: 10 percent cut down their work hours, and 15 percent changed their entire schedule to avoid the harasser.

Immigrants are also at high risk for sexual harassment in the workplace, with 17 percent of immigrant mothers experiencing sexual harassment while at work.

Stopping Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Targets suffer negative consequences involving their career development and mental and physical health, from sleep problems to depression to stress. Sexual harassment may also negatively impact work culture, and victims may be afraid to speak up for this reason.

Employees should push for more stringent definition than required by law in their sexual harassment policies, spelling out clear and severe consequences for workers at all levels. Human resource departments are often the first stop for those who have experienced harassment. Speaking up is key to getting help and making others more aware of how serious and prevalent sexual harassment is in the workplace.

Co-workers must report when they witness sexual harassment, such as inappropriate touching, and should not defend the harasser if a victim has confided in them. Workplace programs educating employees on sexual harassment policies should also encourage bystander intervention.

Employees who have experienced sexual harassment should turn to a trusted confidant and reach out to outside organizations and lawyers for support. An employer cannot penalize an employee under the law for reporting sexual harassment, and a one-time instance of sexual harassment may be pursued as a claim if it’s linked to the granting or denial of employee benefits or employment. If you experience sexual harassment at work, do this: 

  • Consult employee policies and the employee handbook. Follow guidelines for the sexual harassment policy, and place all complaints in writing. You should take specific notes on the harassment, with dates and locations listed, what was done and said and if anyone witnessed the incident.
  • If you feel comfortable and safe enough to speak to the harasser, explain the exact behavior offending you with specifics, and tell them to stop.
  • Talk to a supervisor about what has occurred and what you’ve done to address the behavior. Reach out to the human resources department.
  • Finally, file an official discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which will take action and enforce anti-discrimination laws. In most instances, you’ll have 180 days or six months from the date of the sexual harassment offense to file the complaint. A lawyer isn’t necessary, as the EEOC website provides instructions for submitting a claim.

Employers and employees must work together to make reporting sexual harassment more accessible and clear, but speaking up is the first step to making others more aware of the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace and stopping it in its tracks.

(Photo by Matt Hoffman on Unsplash)

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