The Toll of Sexual Harassment: These 3 Women Were Forced Out of Their Jobs

By Ariane Hegewisch, Jessica Forden, and Eve Mefford

Denise* was pushed out of a union construction apprenticeship. Sierra was pushed out of an administrative position in customer service. Gabriella was pushed out of her first junior management job in food services. These experiences illustrate the devastating toll of workplace sexual harassment to individual workers and how the impacts can accumulate over a lifetime.

Denise’s Story
Pushed out of a High-Paying Union Job in the Trades

Denise had completed two years of a five-year union construction apprenticeship, where fewer than one in twenty workers are women (Childers, Hegewisch, and Jackson 2021). She loved her job but experienced persistent verbal sexual harassment from a coworker. A number of other coworkers regularly berated her and graffitied the worksite with explicit sexual threats to the few women working there. She received little to no support from coworkers, foremen, or the union.

Ultimately, she was pushed out. She left the trades and instead took a job as a (non-union) bus driver, at half the salary, with fewer benefits. This move meant she also lost her employer’s pension contributions and the prospect of participation in the union’s pension plan. If Denise continues to work as a bus driver, the estimated costs of the harassment will exceed $1.3 million in her lifetime.

Denise’s experience illustrates how sexual harassment contributes to keeping women underrepresented in highly paid men-dominated occupations. Union construction apprenticeships provide a pathway to well-paying jobs with robust benefits without requiring higher educational degrees. Sexual harassment acts as both a deterrent, discouraging women from entering the field, and as a tool to push women out of the sector, thereby perpetuating gender segregation. This kind of occupational segregation accounts for over half of the gender wage gap in the United States (Blau and Kahn 2017).

Sierra’s Story
Forced Out of Stable Employment in Customer Service

Sierra had a good job in customer service working for a large nationwide company. Her salary was decent, her benefits were great, and her position offered excellent prospects for promotions and career growth. She was on her way to her first promotion when the team supervisor—a key decision-maker in the department—invited her out and made sexually suggestive comments. When she declined his advances, Sierra started seeing work taken off her plate in retaliation. The retaliation worsened after she made a complaint to the HR department. She was removed from projects and was rated “poor” on performance reviews when previously she had always excelled. Finally, the company fired her, claiming poor performance.

The harassment, retaliation, and nature of dismissal caused her substantial mental and physical pain, and the need for therapy. She did not feel able to take another job in a similar corporate environment; instead, she took a part-time job providing care for an elderly relative and returned to college. As a result of the harassment, she had lower earnings and lost benefits, much higher out-of-pocket expenses for healthcare (including for therapy), higher debt to pay for college, reduced 401(k) and Social Security contributions, and, as a result, much reduced retirement income for the future. While Sierra always intended to go back to school, she not only lost the tuition reimbursement that she would have received, but also faced the opportunity cost of being able to work full-time while studying. Over a ten-year period, she stayed in casual part-time employment. Over her lifetime, her experience with workplace sexual harassment is estimated to cost her close to $600,000.

Gabriella’s Story
Pushed Out of a Junior Management Job in Food Service

Gabriella worked at a fast-food restaurant for over three years. She had just been promoted to shift leader and received her first raise in three years when she was physically and verbally sexually harassed by a coworker. She reported the behavior, and, although Human Resources said they would address the problem, no action was taken. Instead, she was labeled a “troublemaker” and assigned fewer and fewer shifts each week until she was forced to quit and find another job. While Gabriella found a new job relatively quickly, it paid a dollar (11 percent) less per hour.

Because of the decline in her earnings, Gabriella and her mother weren’t able to make full rent payments on the apartment they shared and were evicted. She faced several thousand dollars in late fees for credit card payments, as well as legal costs to restore her credit rating. As a result of the psychological trauma she experienced due to her sexual harassment, Gabriella also needed medical help.

Over her lifetime, the estimated costs of the harassment come to more than $125,000. In the first year alone, the costs from her lost earnings and from credit card late fees came to more than 30 percent of her previous annual salary. 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.

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.

*The names and some minor details from interviews with workers have been changed or obscured where necessary to maintain the anonymity of those interviewed.