Sexual Harassment: “Me Too” and Employee Health

Bust myths about sexual harassment at work and learn how to create more inclusive work environments!

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In the popular news media, the #MeToo movement has received a lot of attention. Of course, there is a lot of controversy surrounding sexual harassment, given it tackles issues of power and gender. Whenever people in power are questioned, there will be backlash against the “questioners”.

However, sexual harassment has also received a lot of attention from researchers. In fact, high-quality data exist which support the importance of the movement. Much of the research which examines these topics links sexual harassment to negative well-being outcomes. So, in this post, we tackle the myths about sexual harassment. We also provide solutions for creating more welcoming and inclusive workplaces. Note: While men do experience harassment at work, they report having these experiences at a much lower rate than women. So, we will focus on women’s experiences of sexual harassment at work in this article.

Myth #1: Sexual harassment doesn’t happen that often at work.

Whenever people discuss sexual harassment, people argue that women are overblowing how often these behaviors happen. They also argue that women falsely report sexual harassment in order to get famous. However, many acts of sexual harassment or violence go unreported (out of fear). Also, the false reporting rate is only somewhere between 2% and 7%. In fact, research finds that 58% of women have experienced potentially harassing behaviors at work. 24% of women report being sexually harassed on the job. False accusations shown in the media can be distracting. But, the real story is in the existence of harassment – not in its fabrication.

What to do about it?

Importantly, data supports the occurrence of sexual harassment at work across industries. So, it is likely that your workplace also has individuals who are harassing others and who are being harassed. To focus on creating more welcoming work environments, it is key to believe victims when they tell you about harassment. Even if you’re not in a leadership position, it’s important that your colleagues know that you can be trusted. Sometimes the hardest step is telling one person about your experiences. But, women may be less likely to report the behavior formally if they face negativity when reporting. Showing allyship by believing reports of harassment is a good first step toward decreasing harassment. Doubting intentions only makes the problem worse.

Shining a light on harassment is the first step toward eliminating it!
Shining a light on harassment is the first step toward eliminating it!

Myth #2: Sexual harassment victims make too big a deal of the consequences of harassment.

When people haven’t experienced harassment themselves, they might treat those who report harassment like they are weak or whiny. However, research strongly supports the idea that sexual harassment behaviors are harmful to those who experience them. In a sample of 70,000 employees, researchers found that employees who experienced sexual harassment suffered negative work outcomes. These included: lowered job satisfaction, organizational commitment, mental health, and physical health. Experiencing sexual harassment even increased the likelihood for PTSD. Similarly, in a sample of almost 90,000 employees, sexually harassed employees were found to have lower overall well-being and higher feelings of distress. These researchers also found that job attitudes and physical health were also negatively impacted by harassment. So, people are right to focus on the negative experience of harassment.

What to do about it?

First, try to recognize if harassment is happening at work. If you or others are experiencing sexual harassment, it is important to realize the physical and emotional tolls these experiences cause. Recognizing the cause and effect of sexual harassment allows you to address it. It can also be important to build communities to discuss how to cope with these outcomes. Sometimes feeling that you’re not alone can go a long way in improving health.

More importantly, you might find strength in numbers and decide to report these behaviors together. It’s easier to support your case when you have multiple reports instead of one. However, having one shouldn’t discourage you from reporting! In other words, name your experience as harassment. Analyze the toll that harassment is taking on you. Finally, work to bridge connections to others who can brainstorm with you about how to deal with it. Or you can offer this kind of support to others, if you haven’t experienced harassment yourself!

It takes a community to provide proper support for those who have been sexually harassed!

Myth #3: Women are responsible for “fixing” harassing climates by taking charge of changing how they cope with it.

While women can take important steps to improve their well-being when facing sexual harassment, everyone is responsible for a sexually harassing climate at work. The women of the #MeToo movement have been very brave in sharing their stories. However, all employees should commit to rooting out sexual harassment at work. Research shows that there are certain aspects of the climate that need to change in order for sexual harassment at work to decrease. Elements of harassing climates are: 1) perceived risk of reporting, 2) lack of punishment for offenders, and 3) feeling like complaints won’t be taken seriously. In the study mentioned above, conducted with about 70,000 employees, climate for sexual harassment caused sexual harassment to occur at work.

What to do about it?

This means that sexual harassment is everyone’s problem to solve. If employees don’t make it clear that they will support those who report sexual harassment, people are more likely to feel they can “get away” with harassing others without consequence. Similarly, harassers create harassing conditions for others if complaints are generally ignored.

So, who is responsible for changing the culture around sexual harassment? Of course, leaders should make it clear that they won’t tolerate harassment and that they will take reports seriously. In fact, the more “out of touch” those at the top are with what is going on at all levels in the organization, the more likely harassment is to occur. But, although leaders can play a big role, we are all responsible for creating environments that are free of sexual harassment toward women.

So, make it clear that you’re an ally, lend a listening ear to others, and believe those who report their experiences. You would want the same to happen to you if you experienced harassment! If you have experienced harassment, seek out trusted others and try to form community. You’re not alone! If you have the ability to find a more inclusive workplace, take it. Your mental and physical health will improve.

While we hope none of you have experienced harassment, the data suggests that many of you have. How have you handled it? Have others reported harassment to you? What have you done to support them? Check out other information about inclusivity at work here! We would love to hear from you.

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