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Why Sexual Harassment Is Happening All Around You But No One Is Talking

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“What color is your underwear?” Katie* was in her dorm room when she received the text message. It was her first year at college, and she had a part-time job at campus dining services. She worked in a Latin-themed dining hall rolling burritos, assembling orders of chips and salsa, and grilling quesadillas.

The text was from one of her co-workers—a 26-year-old super senior who lived with his girlfriend. They’d started texting a few weeks ago when he looked her number up in the staff directory. Until that night the conversation had been limited to benign chats. Now, though, the first question led to a flurry of follow-ups:

“Do you wear underwear when you sleep? Do you sleep with your boyfriend? Do you walk around your room with your underwear on or off?”

Katie stopped replying but the texts kept rolling in, her phone lighting up and buzzing like an unwelcome extension of her co-worker’s presence in her dorm room. Eventually the flood ceased, but she still had to work two shifts with him every week. She never reported the texts to her boss. “I didn’t want to make trouble because I was scared it would come back to bite me and that nothing would change, or that things would be worse and I’d have to quit to escape, and I needed the job to feed myself,” she said.

[Related: What the NFL’s Treatment of Domestic Violence Teaches Us About Harassment at Work]

Not only did she feel stuck, but she also wasn’t sure if the texts merited a report. Her co-worker never forced physical contact or made lewd verbal comments, so she worried she was overreacting.

In the course of reporting this story, every woman to whom I spoke had a story similar to Katie’s, and if it wasn’t her story it was a friend’s or a sister’s. Although certain industries stand out when it comes to workplace harassment and discrimination (looking at you, Silicon Valley), the women I spoke to were journalists, waitresses, business consultants, and production assistants—harassment exists in every workplace.

What’s more, in most cases their harassment went unreported. Like Katie, most of the women I spoke to were afraid to be perceived as weak, whiny, and overly sensitive. When it comes to workplace harassment, this is a pervasive theme: Not only does it frequently go unreported (in a poll by Cosmopolitan, 71 percent of women said they were harassed at work but never reported it), but it’s notoriously difficult to prosecute.

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines harassment as, “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.” It goes on to say that harassment can take many forms such as jokes, insults, intimidation, and offensive pictures, and can be perpetrated by anyone.

[Related: 6 Things You Should Top Saying Around Women at Work]

However, the EEOC notes that, “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents will not rise to the level of illegality.” It also holds that whether or not harassment is illegal is determined on a case-by-case basis.

The EEOC defines both harassment and sexual harassment as types of discrimination, which is illegal under Title VII. Title VII also makes it illegal for employers to retaliate against someone who complained about sexual harassment or discrimination.

Even so, it’s notoriously difficult to win a workplace harassment lawsuit. The plaintiff has to prove that his or her employer acted with an illegal motive (i.e. someone was fired because of their race, sex, gender identity, or national origin). Ellen Pao, former Reddit Chief Executive who sued her company for gender discrimination and sexual harassment, lost her lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, a venture capital firm, in part because the majority of jurors didn’t believe that her dismissal was based on her gender.

In traditionally male industries, it can be even more difficult for women to speak up about harassment. When Megan* worked for one of the top business consulting firms in the country, she was one of the only female interns that summer. Consulting firms deploy teams to work directly with clients, and Megan was placed on a team with two other employees, both men. They met with the client’s team every day, which consisted of seven men, all of whom were senior members of the company.

“Because the consultants work for the company, there was both the power dynamic of consultant-to-client on top of the dynamic of intern-to-seasoned-employee,” Megan said. “They all knew this was my first ‘real job’ and that I was only 21.”

The unbalanced power dynamic was one of the reasons it took Megan so long to go to her boss when one of the client’s employees began to make inappropriate advances.

“The first time he asked me for drinks was very uncomfortable,” she said. “We all sat in one big room together, and he asked when other people were in the room. They’d been talking about how the project had been stressful, and when I agreed he said, ‘Well why don’t I take you for a drink to help ease the stress?’ I felt uncomfortable, but I also felt like I was reading too much into it because he’d asked me in front of the team. So even though it was direct and inappropriate, he got the upper hand.”

The next few times he asked her to drinks or dinner or offered her a ride to the airport, she brushed it off. But then, when everyone was gone for lunch, he approached her again. She was having trouble with a portion of computer code, so she’d stayed behind during the lunch break. He approached her and asked if he could help. “I remember thinking it was strange because he didn’t know [how to code],” she said. “That’s when he started rubbing my shoulders like he was giving me a back massage, saying it would be fine.”

She left the room and reported the incident to her boss, who spoke to the client’s boss, who mandated that the offending employee work separately. But he was still on the team, which meant he worked alone in a different room and entered the conference room periodically to contribute, drawing still more attention to the situation.

“I realized that he’d made me feel uncomfortable long before he rubbed my shoulders,” she said. “But it wasn’t until there was physical evidence that I felt sure the report wouldn’t be brushed aside. We aren’t comfortable being ourselves and acting on gut instinct in a business setting where we’re the minority. Our acceptance in the field is too perilous to risk.”

When it comes to workplace harassment, repeat incidents such as those Sara experienced are the norm. In a study of sexual harassment patterns, 75 percent of women reported that harassment was a repeat occurrence. The same study also found that, “sexual harassment, even at relatively low frequencies, exerts a significant negative impact on women’s psychological well-being.” Women who had been harassed at work, even when the harassment wasn’t severe, reported low job satisfaction, withdrawal, poor mental health, and even symptoms of PTSD.

Although it might be sexual in nature, harassment is rarely intended as a romantic advance. Instead, it’s “designed to humiliate or intimidate the target,” and can take the form of verbal abuse, assigning unrealistic workloads, withholding resources or information, or the arbitrarily removing responsibilities, according to the Journal of Employment Counseling. A new study suggests that male subordinates respond aggressively to female bosses because their manhood is threatened.

“Previous research shows, that men who have been made to feel emasculated in some way are later more likely to sexually harass a woman,” said the study’s main author, Ekaterina Netchaeva. “To the extent that men feel they can get away with those behaviors in the workplace, we might see them emerge.”

In part because of the modern-day prevalence of “casual” workplaces, harassment is becoming more difficult to identify. In a recent poll by Cosmopolitan, when asked if they’d been sexually harassed in the workplace, 16 percent of women who’d answered “no,” but those same women also reported “experiencing sexually explicit or sexual remarks.”

“Many people still think of sexual harassment as a quid pro quo offer of a promotion in exchange for sex,” Michelle Ruiz writes in Cosmo. “So when faced with sneakier forms of harassment—especially from a co-worker, not a boss—women have a way of questioning themselves. Are you supposed to be the ‘cool girl’ at work, shrugging off your cubemate’s constant stories about fu*** his hookup?”

Management structure also affects how, and if, harassment gets reported. Many start-up businesses minimize management in favor of speed and flexibility, writes Vivian Giang for Quartz, which means that employees have nowhere to turn when confronted with harassment.

In addition, technology has significantly widened the playing field for potential harassers. According to a Pew Research Center, 40 percent of adult Internet users have personally experienced harassment, and women ages 18-24 experience online stalking, sexual harassment, and threats at a “disproportionately high level.”

As recently as last February, one in three women reported being harassed at work. And even when harassment is reported, it’s easy for managers to dismiss or belittle cases—in that same Cosmo survey, only 15 percent of women felt their report was handled fairly.

Employers can improve on these numbers, but only if they go out of their way to educate their staff. It’s vital that women feel they can report incidents without being questioned or blamed, and that they know exactly who to talk to when something happens.

Megan, who’s moved on from her campus dining days, now has the support of other women in her office. “At least five women have explicitly said that if we were to have any sort of problem with sexual harassment or are made uncomfortable by anyone, we’re to come to them immediately,” she said.

For more information, The American Association of University Women (AAUW) offers a primer on how to recognize harassment and what to do if you think it’s happening to you. Know your rights and check out their Workplace Sexual Harassment Resource Guide.

*Names have been changed

Photo: Hero Images / Getty Images

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