Before we can think about whether or not we’ve ever experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, we need to become familiar with different definitions of sexual harassment and the fact that it comes in different forms.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) describes sexual harassment as a form of gender discrimination that is in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But what does that mean exactly?
Sexual harassment is intimidation of a sexual nature. It is any type of unwelcome sexual advance, from a crude joke to aggressive sexual bullying (physical, verbal, or both).
The Many Faces of Sexual Harassment
The two most commonly recognized types of sexual harassment are what we call quid pro quo and hostile work environment.
Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment is, essentially, when someone at your job tells you that they will fire you or inflict other negative consequences on you (such as holding back salary increases, promotions, shift, or work assignments) if you will not have sex with them or perform a sexual favor for them. The Latin, of course, translates to: This for that.
Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment, on the other hand, is the creation of an antagonistic environment, expressed in sexual terms. This might include statements of a sexual nature expressed by coworkers and/or supervisors, comments made about your appearance, staring in a suggestive manner, inappropriate touching, or even the presentation of pornography in the workplace. It’s any form of sexually inappropriate behavior that makes being at work feel uncomfortable.
Studies suggest that anywhere between 40-70% of women and 10-20% of men have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and reports of sexual harassment are on the rise.
Unsurprisingly, LGBTQ folk also experience very high levels of sexual harassment at their jobs.
How Sexual Harassment Disproportionately Affects Women
While this type of discrimination affects all genders, it is overwhelmingly inflicted upon females and is extremely effective at keeping women out of lucrative jobs.
One prime example is the hospitality industry.
Low-paid, high-stress maid service jobs are often done by females – whereas higher-paid, much less physically-taxing valet service jobs are dominated by men.
Although a woman may wish to transition from a cleaning job to a valet position in hopes of better pay and less back-breaking work, the creation of a hostile environment in which she is harassed and not welcomed will often keep her away.
This is not uncommon: research shows that female hotel workers experience more sexual harassment on average than women employed in other sectors – and that most of the harassment is performed by their own co-workers.
Understandably, most people are not comfortable working where they are not wanted.
Sexual harassment is most common in low-wage jobs, workplaces staffed primarily by young employees (such as restaurants), and vocations where the vast majority of the workforce (or management) is made up of men.
However, sexual harassment and discrimination on Wall Street and in other high-power industries is rampant as well.
In the 1990s, the famous Wall Street retail stock brokerage Smith Barney was sued for egregious sexual harassment and forced to pay a multi-million dollar settlement to a group of female employees.
Branch managers at the brokerage firm were found guilty of demanding that women take off their shirts in exchange for money while at work. One Smith Barney branch even had a “Boom-Boom Room” – a locked room in which brokers partied and played lewd jokes on female employees.
Both the Smith Barney case and the hotel maids’ plight illustrate how sexual harassment is often a way for men to gain power and control over their female coworkers.
By equating a woman’s worth with her looks, treating her as incapable of doing equal work as her male colleagues, or labeling her as a sex object, men show women that they are not welcome in traditionally male-dominated fields – be it valet parking or finance.
Taking Initial Action
Are women who complain about sexual harassment at risk of being shunned, demoted or fired from their jobs?
“Legally, companies are not allowed to take any adverse action against a person complaining of discrimination,” says Michelle Caiola, Senior Staff Attorney and Acting Litigation Director at the women’s legal defense and education fund Legal Momentum.
Adverse action might include transferring the person to a different department or switching them to a less desirable shift.
If employers are caught penalizing an employee who has complained of discrimination/harassment, they can be subject to a retaliation case (in which the employee who addressed the crime sues their employer for striking back).
According to Caiola, companies work hard to avoid retaliation cases because they are often easier for the victim to win in court.
Still, there are no legal boundaries in place preventing coworkers and/or superiors from ostracizing the victim who has placed a complaint.
The emotional toll of such shunning can easily create an unbearable work environment.
Retaliation from coworkers against the complainant can also be very frightening in hazardous jobs such as construction or firefighting – jobs in which the victim may be counting on her colleagues to protect or even save her life in a crisis.
Many people, especially low-income women working to support their families, are not able or willing to risk their safety or the practicality of keeping their jobs to address sexual harassment – so they continue to endure it.
Some Important Things to Know if You’ve Been Sexually Harassed at Work
1. What is My Company’s Sexual Harassment Policy?
Sexual harassment policies differ from company to company.
There are no legal guidelines in place for what they must include or what consequences must be enacted for breaking them.
Companies with better policies are transparent when it comes to how they investigate claims of harassment/discrimination; some even have zero tolerance policies.
Legally, there is another incentive for companies to create a sound harassment policy: an employer will be better able to fight a discrimination claim in court if they have adhered to their company’s own sexual harassment policy – although this is not a complete defense in all circumstances.
2. Make Sure You Document, Document, Document
Documentation is key in cases of sexual harassment in the workplace.
In the age of modern technology, where most people have e-mail, smart phones, cameras and social media, documenting harassment is much easier than it was in the non-digital age.
Take a picture, save an email or instant message conversation, record a vocal exchange or even take video evidence.
And most importantly, make sure everything is documented immediately, including dates, locations, people involved and any other relevant details.
3. What If I’m Not a Citizen?
Many undocumented female workers come to the US as dependents of their husbands and work in the “informal economy” – in jobs that are paid under the table like house cleaning or nannying services.
Unfortunately, these women do not have legal status or the ability to safely contact the authorities about work violations or harassment from their employers.
These facts make it very easy for employers to take advantage of undocumented workers due to their fear of deportation should they complain about their employers’ practices/labor conditions.
Under the law, undocumented immigrants should be protected against deportation in cases of combatting workplace harassment – just like they should be protected under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in cases of reporting domestic abuse.
But there are many loopholes in the US immigration policy, and the fear of being deported and thus ripped from their families remains a strong deterrent for undocumented women struggling with workplace abuse and harassment.
4. What Are Some Next Steps I Can Take?
The key is taking action collectively.
Talk to your colleagues and see if they are experiencing the same problems at your workplace. Organize the ones that are into a group – multiple voices are louder than just one.
Go to your Human Resources department to lodge the complaint and make sure to get written documentation of your visit.
If your company is unionized and you are a member, get in touch with the union to make a complaint. In many cases, they will be able to help you take action.
If not, talk to local union leaders about unionizing and see if others at your job are interested in organizing a union at your company.
Also consider visiting your local National Organization for Women (NOW) Chapter to seek aid and resources from professionals working on these issues.
5. What If I’ve Tried Everything and Still Haven’t Gotten Results?
The next step is to take the case to court.
For low-income women, the options here are fewer because lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming. In cases where the victim has a family to support but no access to reliable childcare, pursuing a court case may not be a possibility.
Instead, low-income harassment victims often reach out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or their state’s equivalent agency (Fair Employment Practices Agencies, or FEPAs) to file a sexual harassment charge against their employer.
The EEOC then decides whether or not to investigate the claim.
6. What Can I Do To Prevent Sexual Harassment at Work?
Attend and pay attention to your company’s sexual harassment trainings. Education about how to recognize sexual discrimination is a vital step in preventing it.
If you aren’t comfortable with someone’s behavior towards you but don’t think it’s a big enough deal to speak out – think again. Harassers often start out small by testing the water with an inappropriate joke – but without reprimand, things can quickly escalate.
Even if you aren’t the subject of the unwanted attention, call out your coworkers if you hear them say inappropriate things or see them harass a colleague. Sometimes it just takes one outside person to make the harasser aware that what they are doing isn’t going unnoticed – and that they need to stop.
As the workforce continues to change and grow over time, and society becomes increasingly supportive of differences in gender, race, sexuality and lifestyle choice, there is hope for reducing workplace sexual harassment.
But as things stand today, the best defense a person has is to educate themselves about their options – and to get a good cell phone camera!
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Danica Johnson is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism and the Communications Manager at the Coalition on Human Needs, an alliance of national organizations working together to promote public policies which address the needs of low-income and other vulnerable populations. Living in Washington, DC, this West Coast native uses her free time to write for her blog Duckyfem, practice yoga and spend as much time with animals and in nature as possible. Follow her on Twitter @duckyfem. Read her articles here.
Everyday Feminism and Danica extend a special thanks to Terry O’Neill, President of the National Organization for Women (NOW), for her guidance and feedback in the development of this article. NOW is the largest organization of feminist activists in the United States and works to eliminate discrimination and harassment in the workplace, schools, the justice system and all other sectors of society.