There’s a lot to unpack from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) most recent reports on sexual harassment. At first glance, it may look like women are giving up on workplace justice. Most likely, the full story is more complicated.
According to the EEOC’s April 2022 release on “Sexual Harassment in Our Nation’s Workplaces,” workplaces have seen a steady drop in sexual harassment claims since the spike that followed the #MeToo movement. This would be a good thing if it reflected a drop in the number of sexual harassment incidents. But that doesn’t appear to be the case.
The threat of retaliation
The #MeToo movement led to a swell in public awareness around sexual harassment. People across the country and around the globe, mostly women, felt emboldened to speak against their harassers. There was a feeling that times were changing. Businesses could no longer tolerate sexual harassment. The victims had an opportunity to hold their harassers accountable.
Through all of this, the EEOC played a key role. As the agency responsible for overseeing federal anti-discrimination and harassment laws, the EEOC needed to help victims. By most accounts, it failed.
A 2021 article in The Conversation claimed that 63% of employees who filed discrimination complaints, including harassment, later lost their jobs. Importantly, that number predates the #MeToo movement. It comes out of EEOC data from 2012 to 2016. However, it goes a long way toward explaining the hesitation many workers feel when they consider filing complaints.
The EEOC’s own report shows that sexual harassment charges have dropped each year since 2018:
- 7,609 claims in 2018
- 7,514 claims in 2019
- 6,587 claims in 2020
- 5,581 claims in 2021
Almost certainly, the pandemic plays some role in lowering those claims. Much of the workforce shifted toward remote work, and the limited face-to-face contact likely reduced a measure of harassment. Still, we know many harassers found ways to continue their harassment online, and the drop in reporting owes to more than the pandemic.
There’s often a feeling that it’s more harmful than helpful to report harassment. This is part of the reason studies have shown that as many as 90% of workers who experience harassment never report it. This feeling does not shrink when you consider the fact that workers only received payment in 12% of the EEOC’s cases. Just 7% of the claims led to any changes in workplace practices. If workers are going to risk their necks to call out bad behavior, they want hope that their reports are likely to help.
Taking steps to satisfy the high burden of proof
The truth is that it is just as important as ever for women and other workers to report sexual harassment. If no one calls out the harassers, they remain free to act as badly as they choose. Sexual harassment claims are the impetus for change. However, on the individual level, you want to take certain steps to make sure your claim is as effective as possible and involves the minimum amount of risk.
This often means thinking several steps ahead. You are more likely to fall victim to retaliation if you don’t anticipate it. You will be less likely to prove that your employer retaliated against you if you don’t keep good records to support your case. It’s important to call out harassers, but it’s also important to do so the right way.
There are many reasons harassment claims sometimes seem to fall on deaf ears. A 2019 report from Vox addressed the EEOC’s lack of resources. The Conversation noted two more reasons:
- The high legal standards to prove discrimination
- The burden of proof lies mostly with the employee
In other words, you need to meet a high bar to get anywhere with your claims. This is something most employees will struggle to do without good legal representation. And when employees fail to meet these standards, they stick their necks out with little chance of success. The risk, though, still remains.
Don’t give up. Do things right.
Does this mean workers should stop filing harassment claims? Are they too risky to do any good? We don’t think so.
When women choose not to hold harassers accountable, they give them a green light to act as badly as they want. Harassers rarely harass just one person, so one victim’s silence likely emboldens the harasser to act badly against others. Workplaces become toxic.
The only way to stop the problem is to act. You just need to think clearly, plan ahead, make sure you understand the process and gather enough evidence to present a solid, compelling case. It isn’t always easy to make a difference, but you can.