Study: Employees and Employers Disagree on the State of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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Georgene Huang
Georgene Huang

It’s been over a year since #MeToo began making headlines — but just how much has the state of sexual harassment in the workplace changed, really? According to research conducted by Fairygodboss, the actual impact might be more minimal than you'd think.

When Fairygodboss originally surveyed 500 of our community members in November of 2017, the month following #MeToo's entrée as a viral conversation , we learned that women were entering 2018 with low expectations. Less than half of respondents at the time said they expected that media attention on sexual harassment would reduce the number of incidents.

Others are more sanguine. To take stock of the way our 2017 data had evolved, we updated our research a year later, in November 2018, to include responses from 400 additional women, as well as answers to a few new questions. This most current iteration of our survey on sexual harassment reveals that while 57 percent of women believe that, after a year of #MeToo, things largely stayed the same for women in the workplace, 34 percent believe things have improved (however, nine percent believe things have actually gotten worse). 

Thirty percent of survey respondents say that they believe the #MeToo movement has made an impact in their workplaces; yet, the nature of that impact is unclear, since only eight percent report that new policies have been enacted since 2017. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal government agency responsible for enforcing sexual harassment laws, there has been a 12 percent increase in the number of harassment filings made since 2017. 

All this being said, we were surprised and concerned by the results of a Society for Human Resource Management survey reported by Bloomberg, which revealed that three-quarters of executives are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their companies’ treatment of sexual harassment. Overall, our data on employees’ experiences contrasts with the perception that all is well when it comes to employer efforts to keep sexual harassment out of their workplaces. 

I believe there are at least three reasons for this disconnect between employers and employees. First, while EEOC filings may have risen, this doesn’t necessarily mean that more women are reporting more incidents of sexual harassment to their own employers. Indeed, our updated survey data suggests that two-thirds of women still do not report harassment that occurs within the workplace. 

Second, a significant number of employees are simply not sure whether their employers have made changes to policies. Corporate communications can often lag behind actual changes when it comes to sensitive topics — so even if employers have changed or implemented new policies that help support victims of sexual harassment, employees may not yet be aware of these changes. 

Third, I believe there is real, genuine lack of understanding of the definition of sexual harassment. If women feel uncomfortable in a situation but don't know for certain if they are being sexually harassed, they may feel very unable to react productively — much less report the incident to their boss or employer. 

Finally, the solutions employers may have enacted might not match the needs and expectations of employees. For example, 62 percent of women Fairygodboss surveyed suggested that an anonymous hotline to report sexual harassment would help prevent incidents of sexual harassment at work. Employers that simply implement company-wide sexual harassment training may not be doing enough of what women expect or need.

In the end, we hope that shedding light on the discrepancy between employees and well-intentioned employers can help reduce the gap in perceptions while better supporting women in the workplace.