In a moment when high profile cases of sexual harassment in the workplace have received enormous, and warranted, media attention, there’s another important story about about workplace sexual harassment in America that needs to be told: How much it’s fallen, and for whom. In 1997, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. agency charged with enforcing federal workplace discrimination laws, received 16 thousand complaints about sexual harassment from Americans; in 2017, that figure had fallen to 9,600, a drop of more than 40% in 20 years.
There are a number of potential explanations for why overall this has occurred: harassment training is now far more common than it was 20 years ago, the generation of managers who were socialized into thinking harassment was acceptable have increasingly aged out of the workplace, and there are more women managers who are less likely to commit sexual harassment.
This overall stable decline in sexual harassment complaints, however, hides big differences in who is being harassed today, and where. Smaller companies, for one, have seen a more precipitous drop compared to larger firms. And in sexual harassment, as in so many other areas, women of color and older women aren’t sharing in the gains.
While the EEOC doesn’t normally release detailed data about sexual harassment claims, a Freedom of Information Act from BuzzFeed News last year resulted in the public release of case-level information on more than 60,000 cases filed with the EEOC between 1995 and Fall 2016. The level of detail in the cases, while not giving information like the name of the state or the employer involved, does allow for a much richer analysis than the annual reports put out by the EEOC. The release tells us, for instance, the age and race of the individual making the allegation, and the exact date of the allegation.
Since 1995, relatively small companies — those with between 15 and 100 employees — have seen the biggest drop in sexual harassment complaints, with monthly claims falling by nearly 70%. At their peak in mid-1996, firms of this size were generating 200 EEOC sexual harassment claims from women each month; last year, the equivalent figure was about 60 per month. In larger companies, though, the declines have been relatively small, with drops of about 30% since 1995.
Younger women are also less likely to report harassment today. In the past, women in their 20s and 30s reported far more sexual harassment at work than their older counterparts. Today, women in their 20s, 30s and 40s all report sexual harassment at about the same rates. Proportionally, the biggest declines have been among teenagers, a group that’s seen a drop of nearly 75% in sexual harassment claims over the course of the data. The positive spin on this is the marked decline in reports of harassment from young female workers; the other way of looking at it is that there wasn’t any substantial decline in reported harassment of women in their 40s. And perhaps driven by an increase in their presence in the workforce, reported sexual harassment of women 50 and over has increased since the mid-90s.
The biggest disparity in the decline in sexual harassment is in the race of the woman making the complaint. While the woman making the complaint didn’t always give her race — it’s unknown in about 13% of cases — the results from women who did give their race offers another indicated of how much racial inequality remains in the workplace.
At the peak of sexual harassment claims in mid-1996, the EEOC was receiving more than 200 complaints per month from white women, and about 50 complaints per month from African-American women. In 2016, there were about 60 complaints per month from white women; and about 50 per month from African-American women. This data suggests that the steep decline in sexual harassment claims made to the EEOC left behind African-American women almost entirely. The EEOC didn’t reliably collect data on Hispanic employees until 2008, but it appears that the rates of sexual harassment reports among Hispanic women have also failed to share in the large decline enjoyed by white women.
Of course, there is more to sexual harassment than what’s in this analysis. About 1 in 7 sexual harassment claims made to the EEOC are filed by men, a group that’s seen an increase in reports of sexual harassment, mostly perpetrated by other men, over time. There’s also the fact that some unknown proportion of sexual harassment claims are handled within individual companies and never reported to the EEOC, and some proportion of incidents that are never reported at all. Because of this, we have no real way of knowing if these reports are representative of all of the harassment that’s actually happening.
What these results do show, however, is that the problem is far from resolved. While reported harassment has dropped dramatically, it’s dropped most among the women who are most privileged in our society: young white women. Women of color and older women are reporting just as much harassment as they were 20 years ago.This certainly looks like a cultural issue within companies, as evidenced by the fact that the biggest employers made the least progress in reducing sexual harassment claims. In smaller companies, training or replacement of one or two managers might be enough to make a dent in the problem; in larger companies, a culture that allows for sexual harassment may be harder to expunge.
Managers and human resources departments should understand that while existing techniques may have reduced sexual harassment among some groups, they’re not working for everyone. New training and reporting mechanisms, ones that recognize the seeming disparity in the progress that we’ve made, are necessary.
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