How the Financial Costs of Workplace Sexual Harassment Can Accumulate Over a Lifetime

By Ariane Hegewisch, Jessica Forden, and Eve Mefford

Workplace sexual harassment can impose significant financial costs on the individuals who experience it — harassment can cost individuals anywhere from a few hundred dollars to 1.3 million or more over a lifetime from lost earnings, benefits, and pensions, depending on the wages of the worker.

These costs affect workers financially through several pathways, with some costs occurring immediately and acutely, and others occurring repeatedly or over the long term. They include being fired or forced to leave one’s job; cutbacks in shifts; demotions; and losing out on promotions and advancement opportunities (Hegewisch, Deitch, and Murphy 2011; McLaughlin, Uggen and Blackstone 2017; Sugerman 2018; National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2018), as well as costs resulting from the need to address short-term and long-term physical and mental health effects (Chan et al. 2008; McDonald 2012; Willness, Steel, and Lee 2007).

The TIME’S UP Foundation and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research report “Paying Today and Tomorrow: Charting the Financial Costs of Workplace Sexual Harassment” provides new insights into the economic costs of workplace sexual harassment to individual workers. Based on in-depth interviews with 16 survivors of workplace sexual harassment, as well as with experts, the report charts the detailed pathways that lead to financial costs to individual workers as a result of workplace sexual harassment and retaliation.

The United States lacks systematic data sources to assess the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment, and that dearth of data extends to the extent and size of costs experienced by individuals who are targeted by sexual harassment (U.S. Government Accountability Office 2020). Intake data from the more than 3,000 individuals who contacted the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund for legal advice on workplace sexual harassment suggest that more than one in five (22%) faced direct financial costs (Tucker and Mondino 2020). Evidence available from lawsuits suggests that costs as a result of workplace sexual harassment can be substantial (Lee 2019; Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse; Levinson 2019).

Only a small number of those who are subject to harassment ever report it, let alone bring lawsuits (see Feldblum and Lipnic 2016; Society of Human Resource Management 2018). Case studies conducted by TIME’S UP Foundation and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research show that these costs are also substantial for the many workers whose experiences of sexual harassment are not considered in court.

Over a lifetime, harassment can derail individuals from their stable career trajectory, leading to long-term financial consequences from lower earnings in a new job, reduced or slower career progression, or reduced retirement or Social Security contributions. The difference between workers’ actual earnings and expenses after experiences of harassment and the earnings that they could reasonably have expected if the harassment had not occurred can easily extend into the thousands of dollars.

All of the workers interviewed experienced some financial costs as a result of harassment. At the lowest level the costs were $610 for a woman janitor (and while this may appear to be relatively low, it translates into almost 60% of the average monthly rental and utility cost for a single person in this worker’s state of residence). Yet, for most interviewed, the costs were substantially higher: four workers had costs in the ten thousands, six in the hundred thousands, and one higher than $1 million.

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. To learn more about how these costs arise and accumulate over the lifetime, read our next post.

We want to acknowledge that not all costs can—or perhaps even should—be translated into a financial sum. The intangible costs—physical health problems, psychological trauma, emotional suffering, and anguish experienced as a result of harassment and retaliation, and its impact on interpersonal relationships—can also be severe and long-lasting. Though juries and judges in sexual harassment lawsuits often award monetary relief for emotional distress, there is no established methodology for quantifying such amounts.