Workplace sexual harassment can have many intangible psychological and physical consequences, but survivors also face concrete financial costs in the near and long term, according to a new report published nearly four years after the resurgence of the #MeToo movement.
On-the-job sexual harassment helps drive the gender wage gap and can result in lifetime costs for survivors ranging from $600 to $1.3 million, according to the analysis of case studies by the Time’s Up Foundation and Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
“As employers rethink their post-COVID workplaces, we need to ensure that work — whether it’s remote or in the office — is safe, dignified, and equitable,” IWPR president and CEO C. Nicole Mason said in a statement.
Direct costs — stemming from the harassment itself or potential retaliation — can include reduced earnings from scaled-back shifts, lost bonuses and lost promotions; job loss; lost benefits such as retirement contributions and healthcare; legal fees; forced career change; increased medical fees; and education and retraining costs related to reentering the workforce, the analysis found.
“I had good health insurance for the time, good pay for the time, and I lost all of that, because of one guy,” said Sierra, a study participant who was fired from her customer service job after experiencing sexual harassment and retaliation.
Meanwhile, “knock-on” or consequential costs can include negative personal-finance impacts such as default or late fees on car loans, credit-card payments or student debt; housing or retirement insecurity; and reduced wealth. These costs can weigh heavily on lower-wage workers who may have less of a financial cushion to rely on, the authors noted.
The snapshot of sexual-harassment costs provided by IWPR, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, and the Time’s Up Foundation, the “industry and impact” arm of the celebrity-boosted Time’s Up nonprofit, came from in-depth interviews with 16 workplace sexual-harassment survivors; interviews with experts; and a review of existing literature.
‘I guess they saw me as a troublemaker, and that’s when I noticed my hours were starting to get so badly cut.’
— Gabriella, a former food-service worker
The 16 survivors worked in a variety of industries and included 15 women, among them one transgender woman, as well as one man. The researchers changed interview subjects’ names and identifying details “where necessary” to preserve their anonymity, adding that while the subjects were not a random sample, their experiences helped illustrate sexual harassment’s financial toll on workers.
In one case study highlighted by the report, a food-service worker named Gabriella had been promoted to a junior management role, but said she was pushed out of her job after reporting her physical and verbal sexual harassment by a coworker. “I guess they saw me as a troublemaker, and that’s when I noticed my hours were starting to get so badly cut,” she said.
She quit her job and landed another position that paid less; as a result, she and her mother fell behind on rent and were evicted. Meanwhile, Gabriella racked up late fees on credit-card payments and rent, and required medical attention to address psychological trauma resulting from the harassment.
Her lifetime costs stemming from the harassment totaled $125,566, the report estimated, factoring in costs including lost lifetime salary and benefits, five years’ worth of medical costs and late fees on rent.
“The economic and housing insecurity she endured while dealing with her harassment and the retaliation she faced is a significant and immeasurable economic cost with which she and other low-wage workers who endure sexual harassment must grapple,” the authors wrote.
‘My health insurance is terrible now. I’m not really in line for a pension. I don’t get a vacation stamp anymore.’
— Denise, a former construction apprentice
These lifetime costs are especially onerous for harassment survivors “pushed out of well-paid male-dominated occupations,” they said, such as Denise, who quit a union construction apprenticeship with a high-wage job trajectory following regular sexual harassment from coworkers.
Denise, 30, experienced seven months of unemployment for which she was unable to collect unemployment insurance, and then got a job as a private-sector bus driver with a lower salary, fewer benefits and no pension. If she stays in this job until retirement, her lost lifetime wages and benefits along with medical and psychiatric costs will exceed $1.3 million, the report estimated.
“My health insurance is terrible now. I’m not really in line for a pension. I don’t get a vacation stamp anymore,” Denise said.
Meanwhile, IT customer-service worker Sandra lost her job at age 40 because of harassment and retaliation, meaning she lost her generous retirement benefits and missed out on retirement contributions during her subsequent five years of unemployment. The researchers pegged her total lifetime cost resulting from lost retirement and Social Security contributions at nearly $54,000, assuming she retired at 62.
“Evidence available from lawsuits suggests that costs as a result of workplace sexual harassment can be substantial. Only a small number of those who are subject to harassment ever report it, let alone bring lawsuits,” the report said, adding that the 16 case studies “show that these costs are also substantial for the many workers whose experiences of sexual harassment are not considered in court.”
The study findings suggest that workplace sexual-harassment policies aren’t working, the authors added, pointing to a prevailing theme of colleagues, supervisors and human resources failing to address the harassing behavior and even retaliating in some cases.
They called for better policies and practices to prevent harassment and retaliation, including mandatory anti-harassment training, employee “climate surveys”; the barring of mandatory nondisclosure agreements in lawsuit settlements; and extension of statutes of limitations for claims of sexual harassment.
Also read: What happens if you break an NDA?
The #MeToo movement’s renewal in 2017 focused global attention on sexual harassment and assault and resulted in scores of high-profile figures being publicly accused of sexual misconduct, new state laws limiting the use of NDAs and more-stringent workplace harassment policies in various industries, among other changes.
Nationally representative data on sexual harassment and its costs remains scant, the authors of the present study also noted.
Still, some previous research has explored the issue. A 2017 article in the journal Gender & Society, for example, found that sexual harassment in women’s early careers “increases financial stress, largely by precipitating job change, and can significantly alter women’s career attainment.”