5 Risk Factors for Workplace Sexual Harassment

By Ariane Hegewisch, Jessica Forden, and Eve Mefford

Sexual harassment can occur in any workplace, but not all workplaces and not all workers face the same level of risk for experiencing sexual harassment and potential retaliation. Several of these risk factors also create barriers to reporting harassment and increase the risk of retaliation.

The TIME’S UP Foundation and Institute for Women’s Policy Research report “Paying Today and Tomorrow: Charting the Financial Costs of Workplace Sexual Harassment” examines the economic costs of workplace sexual harassment to individual workers, drawing on in-depth interviews with 16 survivors of workplace sexual harassment, as well as stakeholder experts. Across the stories shared by workers in interviews, several common themes arose, especially around how workplace structures and conditions made workers vulnerable to harassment and how coworkers and management dealt with the harassment.

A number of interviewees worked in industries with characteristics that elevate the risk of harassment, including work that heavily relies on performance assessment by customers or clients; work that is physically isolated, decentralized, or removed from administrative oversight; and work that involves significant power differentials or that involves precarious contracts through temporary employment or undocumented and non-permanent immigration status (Feldblum and Lipnic 2016; Hersch 2015; Ilies et al. 2003; U.S. Government Accountability Office 2020).

Male-Dominated Industries

The risk of harassment is substantially higher in workplaces where women are the minority of workers and in occupations that are male-dominated (Folke et al. 2020; U.S. Government Accountability Office 2020). Women working in construction, transportation, or utilities, for example, are more than four times as likely to have filed official claims of sexual harassment with the EEOC than women working in education and health services (Hersch 2011). Five of the women who agreed to share their experiences with us worked in such male-dominated environments, including the construction trades, trucking, and IT (both at a software engineer level and at lower levels in tech support).

“Every time I bent down he would pretend to have sex with me…There were a few guys that were good about it but most of them were, like, ‘Well, did you talk to him? Do you know where this is coming from?’… I got a lot of resentment… There’s always resentment in the union if a man does something that a woman doesn’t like and you speak up. There’s always going to be resentment.”
—Mariam, Construction

Physically Isolated Workplaces

Several interviewees worked in physically isolated environments, as is common in construction, trucking, and janitorial work, and for health or domestic care work performed in a client’s home. Such physical isolation can make workers more vulnerable by placing them in work environments with harassers and few witnesses. Six of the people we interviewed, five women and one man, were janitorial workers, and one was a personal care worker.

“I was harassed by a manager of the building where I worked. I washed bathrooms and he always came in the bathroom with his penis out, telling me to give him oral sex all the time. He came showing it to me and telling me that he was very horny, that if I gave him oral sex I could keep my job, that I would never be out of work, even that he was going to give me money.”
—Rosa, Janitorial Services

Power Imbalances

Many of the people interviewed found that, when they tried to report the harassment, their harasser was seen as a more ‘valuable’ employee than the harassed, and so little action was taken to address the issue — an experience that is widely supported by research (Feldblum and Lipnic 2016).

Another power imbalance can arise when an employee’s pay is tied to their performance or good evaluations from clients. This is particularly the case in tipped work, where servers and other tipped workers might feel pressure to accept harassing behaviors to ensure they are tipped well (Restaurant Opportunities Center United 2018).

One of the biggest power imbalances can come from immigration status. Sexual harassment and assault are particularly common in industries with high numbers of immigrant workers (American Civil Liberties Union and National Employment Law Project 2019; Fitzgerald 2019; Hegewisch, Deitch, and Murphy 2011; Pottenger, Bustamante, and Carvajal 2019; Yeung 2018). Several of the workers interviewed were undocumented, making it much more difficult for them to feel that they could challenge the harasser or officially report the harassment, particularly as several of them were financially responsible for families back home. Their precarious employment status is exacerbated by a lack of knowledge of how to access legal supports.

“Of course the complaint was not taken seriously because [my harasser] was someone who had more value than a person like me.”
—Celia, Janitorial Services

Fractured or Decentralized Employment Structures

Another burden commonly confronting those who face harassment in the workplace is a lack of a clear channel for reporting harassment. In the construction industry, for example, work is often performed by small subcontractors who do not have a dedicated human resource management person or may even be too small to be covered by Title VII–related sexual harassment prohibitions (National Conference of State Legislatures 2015). This is also a frequent issue for janitorial staff, personal care workers, and others working in decentralized or franchised workplaces. Instead of working directly for one employer, they may be performing services for a joint employer or sub-contractor (Forden 2019; Waldinger et al. 1996). Many fast-food workers are employed at franchises, far removed from headquarters’ human resource management oversight, without clear accountability systems for harassing behavior; in some organizations local management may be discouraged or may discourage workers from reporting incidents up the chain of command (Feldblum and Lipnic 2016; Sugerman 2018).

“As a [shift] manager, I was never informed that you are able to communicate via human resources over the telephone, email, or anything like that. They never speak to you personally about that, and it’s very detrimental when it comes to those types of situations. It’s literally just a piece of paper that’s just got the numbers and names … it’s all the way back towards where you have to go to the cooler, but the way the door opens, it blocks the posters.”
—Gabriella, Food Service

Indifference, Incompetence, Broken Reporting Systems, and Retaliation

For nearly every one of the individuals interviewed, the costs of sexual harassment were increased because management, and sometimes peers, failed to take adequate action to stop the harassment, or even worse, retaliated against the employee when they reported incidents and sought help. As part of this retaliation, interviewees faced cuts in hours or shifts, being moved to shifts with difficult times or locations, exclusion from advancement opportunities, negative performance reviews (when they had been glowing before), social isolation, and loss of employment, whether they were let go for contrived “other reasons” or because they could no longer endure the conditions at their workplace, as well as negative references which made it harder to find a new or equivalent job. Not being taken seriously was a major component of the decision for those who left their jobs — one that clearly could have been avoided if employers had taken appropriate action.

All of the above points to the desperate need for action against workplace sexual harassment and the retaliation that workers too often face when trying to report it.

This post is an excerpt from “Paying Today and Tomorrow: Charting the Financial Costs of Workplace Sexual Harassment,” a collaboration between the TIME’S UP Foundation and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.