Worker voice, representation, and power
Research Summary

Sexual Harassment Is Underreported When the US Economy and Safety Net Are Weak

Madeline BaxterJanuary 30, 2024
Source: National Bureau of Economic Research Title: Why is workplace sexual harassment underreported? The value of outside options amid the threat of retaliation Author(s): Gordon B. Dahl and Matthew M. Knepper Original Publication Date: September 2021 Read Full Research Article

Workplace sexual harassment, which includes sexist or sexual hostility, sexual coercion, and unwanted sexual attention, can be incredibly harmful, hurting both US workers and their organizations. It contributes to lower job satisfaction, greater turnover, higher rates of absenteeism, and elevated mental stress. Approximately 5 million workers are victimized by workplace sexual harassment annually, yet only 1 in 11,000 file a formal charge with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Gordon B. Dahl at the University of California, San Diego and Matthew M. Knepper at the University of Georgia’s Terry School of Business investigate whether workers are less likely to report sexual harassment when the US labor market or unemployment insurance benefits are weak. Using data from 2000 to 2015, this study examines how the availability of outside job opportunities and safety nets helps workers feel empowered to report sexual harassment. The research centers on the assumption that an increase in the severity of formal sexual harassment complaints represents greater underreporting.

Key findings
  • Unlike other employment charges, sexual harassment charges are unlikely to be reported unless they are especially severe. Workers in the United States are less likely to file sexual harassment charges if there is less evidence or if they feel they won't be believed. Compared to claims not concerned with sexual harassment, harassment charges are 50 percent more likely to be severe. In other words, they are underreported. These charges come with much more employer retaliation and intimidation, more than twice as much than nonharassment cases.
    • Sexual harassment claimants are more likely to be women and younger than claimants of nonharassment charges.
  • Workers tolerate higher levels of sexual harassment when they have fewer opportunities to switch jobs. When the labor market is weak (with fewer job prospects), workers are likely to file only more severe sexual harassment charges. A 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate increases the prevalence of severe sexual harassment charges by 0.5 to 0.7 percent. Each 1 percentage point decrease in the employment-to-population ratio results in a 2.1 percentage point increase in the severity of sexual harassment charges filed.
  • Workers are less likely to file sexual harassment charges when they have fewer unemployment protections. Weakened unemployment insurance increases the severity of sexual harassment charges filed. In other words, workers tolerate higher levels of sexual harassment when the safety net is weak. When North Carolina reduced the duration of its unemployment insurance program by 23 percent, the amount of weekly benefits by 35 percent, and program eligibility by 50 percent, the severity of sexual harassment charges increased by 33 percent, which represents a greater underreporting of workplace sexual harassment.
  • Gendered power disparities in the workplace increase sexual harassment reporting. The higher the share of men working or supervising in an industry or establishment, the more sexual harassment cases are filed and the greater the severity of the cases. In other words, there are more sexual harassment reports and sexual harassment is even more underreported than in industries and establishments with fewer men. More specifically:
    • The underreporting of male-manager sexual harassment is amplified with higher unemployment rates as the selectivity of the charges filed increases. When outside labor market opportunities become scarcer, the threat of retaliation by male colleagues and male managers becomes an increasingly effective deterrent to reporting.
    • Establishments with sexual harassment charges employ 2.8 percentage points more male workers, 5 percentage points more male managers, and 2.1 percentage points more women in lower-skilled occupations compared to establishments without charges filed.
Policy and practice implications

The authors identify the following implications for policy and practice:

  • Enforcement institutions should raise the costs borne by US employers, if they are found culpable when charges are formally filed, to curb sexual harassment misconduct and encourage reporting.
  • Penalties for sexual harassment could be higher when the US labor market is weak and workers have fewer protections to report sexual harassment. Developing penalties that are countercyclical to the labor market could aggressively deter illegal harassment.

WorkRise has identified the following implications for policy and practice:

  • Local and state governments should ensure the stability of social safety net programs. By doing so, they help to ensure that in both weak and strong labor markets, victims of sexual harassment can be empowered to report their claims, lowering the number of victims who feel confined to hostile working environments. Additionally, states should ensure that workers have access to unemployment insurance when they quit due to sexual harassment.
  • Legislators should continue to strengthen the labor market. By keeping unemployment low, workers have more power to report sexual harassment and more freedom to find different jobs. This flexibility helps to ensure that workers can report sexual harassment and leave unsafe work environments to seek better job opportunities.
  • Organizations should continue to gender diversify their leadership to build more hospitable work environments for victims of workplace sexual harassment. As the authors show, a lack of women in power contributes to a more sexually hostile work environment and to an increased fear of reporting illegal behavior due to retaliation.

Victims of sexual harassment are more selective about filing charges in weak US labor markets and under weak safety net protections. Reductions in outside job opportunities and in unemployment insurance benefits make US workers more vulnerable to sexually hostile work environments. Creating safe environments for reporting sexual harassment, free of coercion and retaliation, is a critical imperative to adequately protect workers in the US labor market.

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