The Modern Face of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a much more widespread problem than most employers, and even employees might realize. Sure, there have been strides made in preventing these type of issues in the workplace, but many American workers say it’s not enough.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment that’s sexual in nature. While that may be somewhat obvious to most, the EEOC also defines sexual harassment as offensive remarks being made about a person’s sex. This could mean making disparaging or offensive comments about women in general. According to the EEOC both the victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and both parties can be of the same sex.

The EEOC goes on to say the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents that aren’t serious in nature, but it becomes illegal when it’s frequent or severe enough to create a hostile work environment. It’s also illegal when it leads to an adverse employment decision, such as an employee being fired or demoted. The person doing the harassing can be a supervisor, a coworker, or even someone who’s not an employee, such as a customer.

Elephant in the Valley

Ellen Pao, a former partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, brought attention to the issue of gender and sexual harassment starting in 2012 when she filed a gender discrimination suit against her formula employer. Pao also served as the interim chief executive officer of Reddit.

The Modern Face of Sexual Harassment

The claim against Kleiner Perkins went to trial in February 2015, and it raised the topic of gender discrimination and sexual harassment in Silicon Valley. The trial ended up in a favorable verdict for Kleiner Perkins, but it did highlight some things going on in tech companies that many people found disturbing. During the trial, others came forward with discrimination suits of their own, such as Tina Huang’s suit against Twitter.

Despite the verdict, it did spawn research on the topic including the “Elephant in the Valley Survey.” The survey, conducted by team members from Stanford University, was admittedly sparked by what happened with Ellen Pao. The study included more than 200 women who had at least ten years experience in Silicon Valley. 77 percent of respondents were 40 or older, and 75 percent of participants had children. 25 percent were CXOs, and 11 percent were company founders. Employees were from start-ups as well as large-scale corporations like Apple, Google, and VMWare.

60 percent of respondents said they were the victim of unwanted sexual advances, while 65 percent of women who said they’d experienced unwanted sexual advances had received them from a superior. 1 in 3 responding employees said they had feared for their personal safety because of work-related situations. At the same time, there seemed to be efforts to silence women according to the survey, with 84 percent of respondents saying they’d heard at some point in their career they’d been told they were too aggressive, and more than half said they’d heard this multiple times.

60 percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the results when they did report sexual harassment while 33 percent said they did nothing because they thought it would have a negative impact on their career. 30 percent didn’t report it because they said they just wanted to forget it happened, and 29 percent signed a non-disparagement agreement.

The Casual Work Environment

While it may seem like a great deal is being done to prevent sexual harassment in the modern workplace, the more casual nature of work is making the lines blurrier, and often employees don’t even know what constitutes harassment.

David Low, a San Francisco employment lawyer who represented the former marketing vice president of Tinder, Whitney Wolfe, spoke to Cosmopolitan magazine about the topic. Wolfe sued the dating app for sexual harassment after a Tinder executive she dated took away her co-founder title. Her civil complaint alleged she was a 24-year-old girl, and it would be “slutty” for her to be listed as the female founder of a “hookup” app. According to the civil lawsuit, the executive often said derogatory things to Wolfe, and he ended up resigning. Wolfe settled with Tinder.

Low told Cosmopolitan the following: “With the advent of social media, there is a much more casual relationship between coworkers and supervisors, and that absolutely creates more opportunity for people to cross the line between professional and unprofessional conduct.”

Each year the EEOC sees between 7000 and 9000 sexual harassment complaints filed, and a Cosmopolitan survey found about 1 in 3 women between the ages of 18 to 34 has been sexually harassed in the workplace. The study looked at more than 2,200 full-time and part-time female employees, and SurveyMonkey conducted it.

Eight in 10 respondents said the harassment involved comments made out loud while 44 percent said they’d encountered sexual advances and unwelcome touching. About 1 in 4 said they’d received inappropriate or sexually charged texts or emails. It wasn’t just men who were responsible for the harassment—10 percent of people who participated in the survey said the harassment involved another woman.

The survey also showed, much like what was brought to light with Ellen Pao’s case, that sexual harassment isn’t limited to women in jobs not requiring degrees, or women without an education. 45 percent of Cosmo respondents who said they’d been sexually harassed held a Bachelor’s degree while 19 percent said they had a graduate degree.

EEOC’s 2014 Data

Last year the EEOC released its annual findings of sexual harassment enforcement and litigation data.

For Fiscal Year 2014 there were 6,682 sexual harassment claims received by the EEOC. There were more than 7,000 resolutions reported, 786 settlements, and more than 1,600 administrative closures. Of those 3,662 were found to have no reasonable cause, 426 were found to have reasonable cause, there were 152 successful conciliations and 274 unsuccessful conciliations. Finally, $35 million was paid in monetary benefits during Fiscal Year 2014.

All of these findings, many of which are startling to the say the least, represent the need for more employee training and more action on the part of employers. Continue to our next post to find out more about the costs associated with sexual harassment in the workplace.

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