This post includes descriptions and examples of sexual harassment and sexual assault

Sexual harassment part 1

This important topic will be broken up into two separate entries. This post is about sexual harassment policies and processes. The next post will be about sexual harassment incidents and how to best be supportive as an individual. 

Most people have a general idea of how sexual harassment is legally defined – unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature [EEOC]. But many people don’t recognize the indirect but extremely damaging types of sexual harassment nor do most realize how intense the emotional and career harm it can cause.

Enforcement of federal Sexual Harassment law comes from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is a federal agency, established in the 1960s, that administers and enforces laws against workplace discrimination [Wikipedia]. It’s mission is to “enforce federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. [EEOC]

Facts and Data

  • Sexual harassment includes more than direct harassment – it’s also about work processes that result in adverse employment decisions such as wrongful firings or passing people over for promotions because of their gender. It’s also about hostile environments in which many seemingly small behaviors add up to create a workplace unfriendly to someone because of their gender [EEOC Report]
  • A huge percentage of women face sexual harassment in the workplace. Studies find that 25% to 75% of women have experienced sexual harassment at work. This very wide range stems from differing methodology. A US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report found that around 25% of women report having experienced “sexual harassment” when the term was undefined. This number jumps to 75% when women are asked about specific behaviors such as crude gender-based terminology, sexist jokes, and other “put downs”. One may logically conclude that the true figure is probably on the higher end [EEOC Report]
  • People are very reluctant to report sexual harassment, and most incidents go unreported. The EEOC found that the most common responses to sexual harassment are to avoid the harasser (33-75%); deny or downplay the impact (54-73%); and ignore, forget, or endure the situation (44-70%). The least common response was to report the incident: unwanted physical touching was formally reported a scant 8% of the time while sexually coercive behavior was reported only 30% of the time [EEOC Report]
  • Prevalence of sexual harassment is directly tied to workplace culture, not just some bad apples. The worst cultures are those in which people fear reporting sexual harassment and think nothing will come of their report. These offices ignore or reward sexist jokes or behaviors that may seem unimportant – but very quickly add up to create these toxic cultures [The Atlantic]
  • Women who are sexually harassed leave their jobs at 1.5 times the rate of those who don’t. Researchers found that 80% of women who experienced unwanted touching or multiple harassing behaviors left their jobs – whereas women who didn’t experience harassment left at a 54% rate over the same time span [EEOC Report]
  • Most sexual harassment cases are brought by women. In 2018, over 13,000 charges involving sexual harassment were brought to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), 84% of them by women [EEOC]
  • Men and sexual harassment. Men do get sexually harassed, and often sexual harassment against men is not seriously, despite real psychological consequences. Men who deviate from "traditional" stereotypes of masculinity, such as being actively involved in feminist causes, were more likely to experience some form of harassment [Psychology Today] [American Psychological Association]
  • There has been a recent increase in sexual harassment cases. From 2017 to 2018 there was a 50% increase in sexual harassment cases [EEOC]

Twice as many women as men think reporting sexual harassment would be pointless, risky, or uncertain [McKinsey]

Hear it FirstHand

At my previous job I was on a conference call and had my manager and a higher-up in my conference room. In the middle of the call, the higher-up (whom I had worked with before and had a good relationship) noticed a bruise on my thigh and proceeded to touch it (which was pretty high up on my leg) and asked how I got it. I was mortified and didn’t know what to do, and my manager was looking and I couldn’t help think that my manager was going to think that I was getting good reviews because I let this higher-up touch my thigh (or worse). Afterwards, I thought about reporting this, but soon realized when playing out the scenarios in my head, that under no situation would reporting this incident work out well for me – the old boys club at the company I worked for would much sooner get rid of me than him, and cost me my job in the process. 


A client once told me my breasts were "a booby trap. I can't look away!"  My male boss, after giving me sufficient time to respond if I wanted to, and seeing that I was coming up blank, jumped in with, "I'm sure you're perfectly capable of looking away if you don't want to see them. You're an adult." Thanks boss man!!

There are also a dozen plus times when I've gone to him for support behind the scenes or after an incident (once I was borderline sexually harassed by a freaking city council member of all people!) and he's been a great source of listening, validation, and counsel when I've needed.

Women in different roles and of different backgrounds report experiencing sexual harassment differently. Remember, however, that the percentage of women who say they have experienced sexual harassment jumps considerably when sexual harassment is defined [McKinsey]

Take Action

  • Conduct a sexual harassment workplace climate survey. Employees must be able to take this anonymously. You can then review the findings, discuss the results, and take necessary steps.
  • Integrate employee conduct into performance assessment. Be willing to sacrifice and spend money to live up to your values. Keeping “high performers” who are culturally toxic damages office place morale and is a bad move financially over the medium and long term.
  • Clarify the definition of sexual harassment to your organization. This is a necessary step, and you must also educate everyone on the harassment grievance procedure. Many organizations have their employees do some kind of online or in-person training, but this alone is not enough. See the action item below...
  • Leadership and systems must be committed to a diverse, inclusive, and equitable organization. A commitment from leadership, including the very top, in which harassment is simply not acceptable is paramount. Furthermore, at all levels, across all positions, an organization must have systems in place that hold employees accountable for this commitment. Have clear and effective policies and systems in place. Check out the EEOC report starting on page 31 [EEOC Report]