Has Sexual Harassment Changed in the Last 20 Years?

In 1998, University of Texas at Arlington researcher James Campbell Quick published his review of sexual harassment research in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

Two decades later, Quick teamed up with M. Ann McFadyen, a colleague at UTA, to see just how much—if anything—had changed since he diagnosed the chronic workplace problem in the late ’90s.

Sexual Harassment pbs rewire
Source: American Sociological Review

In some ways, they learned, the climate of workplace sexual harassment appeared to improve—there has been a 28 percent decline in complaints since 1998, according to Quick and McFadyen’s analysis of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Fair Employment Practices Agencies data.

But—as has been made clear in headlines over and over the past few months—sexual harassment is an insidious problem that continues to plague workplaces across industries. And the changing demographics of workplaces and methods of harassment make it tougher to track than researchers would like.

Not just a ‘woman’s problem’

Though complaints are down overall, complaints filed by men have increased by 15 percent in the past 20 years, the researchers found.

This probably doesn’t mean that incidents of sexual harassment against men are increasing—the researchers pointed out that “males in the workplace are simply more willing to file complaints given the reduced stigma around males making complaints. This may be indeed because of increased awareness of what constitutes (sexual harassment) and how to report” it.

This probably goes hand in hand with a more inclusive concept of what sexual harassment is. Though there are still stereotypes and misunderstandings surrounding sexual harassment, it’s no longer considered solely a “woman’s problem” as it was 20 years ago, the researchers wrote. Recent studies show that 30 percent of working men experience sexual harassment, as do 50 percent of working women. Men in the military are 10 times more likely to be sexually harassed than civilian men, but 81 percent do not report it.

One study the researchers looked at suggested that sexual harassment might be even more damaging to mental health to male victims.

“When a man is sexually harassed, it may be more unexpected, have a more stigmatizing effect, and consequently, be more detrimental to mental health,” mental health researcher Dawne Vogt and her team wrote in their paper. “On a related note, it is likely that there is generally more social support available to women compared with men who experience sexual harassment.”

A shift in the right direction

These days, the EEOC, the government organization that handles elevated work discrimination complaints, is more likely to find in the favor of the accuser when a sexual harassment complaint is filed than it was 20 years ago. Quick and McFadyen found that “merit resolutions”—findings that indicate the accuser’s complaint had merit—had increased by nearly 40 percent. And the amount of money the EEOC collects on behalf of sexual harassment victims has increased by 6 percent.

It’s rare, however, that sexual harassment claims make it that far. In the EEOC’s 2016 report on harassment in the workplace, task force co-chairs Chai R. Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic wrote that most cases continue to go unreported. Victims will often change jobs rather than file a formal complaint “because they fear disbelief of their claim, inaction on their claim, blame, or social or professional retaliation.”

Sexual Harassment pbs rewire
Source: EEOC and FEPA data

“The least common response to harassment is to take some formal action—either to report the harassment internally or file a formal legal complaint,” Feldblum and Lipnic wrote. “Roughly three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager or union representative about the harassing conduct.”

A diversifying workforce

Changing demographics in the workplace also make for some conflicting findings on the realities of sexual harassment. With a growing number of young, educated women in the workforce, some scholars believed sexual harassment would peter out as norms changed. Yet the persistence of sexual harassment, even as workplaces become more superficially equal, supports researcher Berdahl’s belief that harassers might feel threatened by an increase in women in the workplace and double down on harassment as a means of maintaining the status quo, Quick and McFadyen pointed out.

More and more attention is being paid to how other identities intersect with sexual harassment—in the majority of past research on sexual harassment, white women were the focus. The black and hispanic subjects of a 2009 study on the intersection of race and sexual harassment published in the Western Journal of Communication “reported sexual harassment experiences that were intertwined with racial discrimination.”

Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community are more likely to be sexually harassed based on sexual orientation than on gender alone, a recent study by Verónica Caridad Rabelo and Lilia M.Cortina found. These researchers argued this evidence could be used to expand formal sexual harassment protections to include harassment based on sexual orientation.

Quick and McFadyen believe more academic attention needs to be paid to these intersections as employers and employees try to snuff out workplace sexual harassment.

“There has been progress on some fronts but not on others and the problem has morphed, becoming more complicated for a variety of reasons,” they wrote. “We know that the makeup of the workforce is changing. … We also know little about millennials’ view of what constitutes (sexual harassment) in the workplace, important as this generation is larger than the baby-boomer generation, and have a much different attitude toward work, sexual behavior and responsibility.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.