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Sexual Harassment Today

An Update—Looking Back and Looking Forward

Mauricio Velásquez, President
Diversity Training Group

Sexual harassment complaints are piling up at the EEOC at the rate of about 15,000 per year.  It has leveled off in the last few years.  The volume of the complaints had been increasing steadily for the past decade.  Even though the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination on the basis of sex, the law was not interpreted to include sexual discrimination at work until a decade later and did not become a major anti-sexual harassment tool until the 1990’s.

Some argue it all started with the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings.  I have coined that media frenzy that brought these issues into our living room for the first time “gender quake.”  There have been plenty of aftershocks from Senator Bob Packwood’s scandal to Tailhook to Aberdeen to Mitsubishi to most recently the Air Force Academy to name just a few.  Almost weekly, you can count on reading something somewhere about somebody who was victimized or violated by what appears to be a negligent or cavalier employer. 

There seems to be no relief in sight.  We are not expecting the number of complaints to decline anytime soon.  Even though almost all of corporate America have formulated anti-discrimination policies and procedures in accordance with federal regulations first issued in the mid-1970s, Ellen Bravo, executive director of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, told the Washington Post in 2002 that sexual harassment continues to be the biggest single source of complaints from working women.

Harassment figures vary depending on the field in question but clearly some fields are in the newspaper more often and under greater scrutiny.  The American Psychological Association estimates that 71% of working women will be subject to sexual harassment during their business careers, according to a 2002 U.S. Department of Labor report.  According to this same article in Corporate Corridors, July/August, 2003, Harassment figures vary depending on the field:

  •  42% of women in the federal workforce say they were harassed
  •  66% of women in the military
  •  60% of women surveyed by Working Woman magazine
  •  77% of female physicians in a 1993 Canadian study reported being harassed by patients
  •  66% of women vice presidents or higher polled in the largest U.S. service and industrial firms reported having been sexually harassed
  •  39% of female attorneys said they were harassed by clients in a 1994 report 

Obviously, harassment takes its toll on professional woman and some opt out and leave their employer and start their own business.  You don’t need much more of a motivator than a workplace that not only does not value you, but actually devalues you.  As recently as 2000, American business women were documented as owning more than 26% of this country’s 20.8 million non-farm businesses, employ more than 7.1 million people and generate more than $818.7 billion in sales and receipts to the economy, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2000 Survey of Minority-owned Business Enterprises. 

In the public sector we have some numbers to look at as well that serve as some kind of a barometer.  In 1980 the U.S. government reported it forked over $189 million for sexual harassment lawsuits adjudicated during the previous two years.  By 1987, the total had reached $267 million for the previous two years.  In 1994, the government bill had climbed to $327 million for the previous two years.  When compared to the corporate or private sector side of the economy, we know that in 1988, the cost for sexual discrimination lawsuits topped $15 million for a typical Fortune 500 service or manufacturing company.  Today, the cumulative costs can come close to $1 billion for the biggest organizations with many companies paying for pay equity incongruities including failure to provide equal pay, offer equal opportunities for promotion, or for not shielding women employees from harassment.