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Why do we keep seeing sexual harassment in the workplace?

On Behalf of | Aug 26, 2022 | Firm News

When it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, it sometimes seems like things never change. However, that perception is not entirely true. Instead, there are points of good news and others that aren’t so good.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) noted many of these points in a recent report. But the issue isn’t just that harassment continues to exist. We’ve recognized the problem for ages. So why haven’t we done a better job of eliminating it? That’s a question that finds some answers in a recent article about the VA’s struggles with harassment.

Sexual harassment since #MeToo

The EEOC’s recent report on sexual harassment looked at how the statistics had changed since the #MeToo movement blew up in 2018. It outlined several notable trends.

  • From 2014 to 2021, the EEOC received between 6,000 and 7,000 reports of sexual harassment each year, with three exceptions. After the #MeToo movement went viral, reports shot up above 7,500 per year for both 2018 and 2019. Reports dropped below 6,000 in 2021, potentially due to the pandemic.
  • Most incidents of sexual harassment continue to go unreported. The EEOC cited one study that said victims do nothing in roughly 90% of all cases. Accordingly, the full picture is far larger than the claims and complaints suggest.
  • Unsurprisingly, women filed nearly 80% of all sexual harassment claims. But the statistics for sexual harassment claims filed along with claims of racial harassment are more revealing. They show that Black women find themselves targeted far more often than others. Caucasian women filed the second most joint harassment claims, but at 16% of such claims, compared to the 71.2% filed by Black women.
  • The leading cause for the harassment complaints was unfair dismissal. This was a factor in 48.3% of all claims.
  • As a point of good news, the EEOC reports it recovered nearly $300 million for sexual harassment victims between 2018 and 2021. That was just over $100 million more than it recovered in the previous three years.

Notably, the EEOC noted that more claimants enjoyed favorable resolutions. However, these victims were still in the minority. Even in the wake of #MeToo, only 28.6 percent of those who filed claims saw a favorable resolution.

Why aren’t we making progress faster?

Although the EEOC report recorded a steep drop-off in complaints for 2021, it’s likely the pandemic and remote work played some part. Apart from that drop, and the immediate spike after the #MeToo movement began, the number of complaints remained relatively unchanged since 2014. Simultaneously, the majority of reports do not resolve in the victim’s favor, and the vast majority of incidents go unreported.

So, why aren’t things getting better? FEDWeek’s summary of the VA’s struggles may illuminate us. In 2020, the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported on the VA’s sexual harassment policies. The policies offered a path forward, but the GAO’s report identified ways that the VA failed to implement them properly:

  • The officials who oversaw harassment issues likely faced conflicts of interest as they also oversaw hiring and promotions.
  • Because the VA did not require managers to report harassment complaints, the agency lacked data that could help it, and others, better understand the full picture.
  • Managers lacked clear procedures for taking and documenting corrective actions.

As a result, the VA has hindered its own efforts to fight harassment, and FEDWeek reports that roughly 1 in 6 of all VA employees said they had experienced harassment within the past two years.

It’s not enough to know better

In the end, both reports share a single theme: It’s not enough to know better. People and agencies must act on what they know. Agencies must create sound policies. Then they must follow through and ensure those policies lead to action.

Simultaneously, victims must act. Refusing to report harassment means that it will necessarily go unpunished. That will empower the harassers, making them bolder and encouraging them to continue their harassment. The more victims report, the more they win.


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