DE&I   //   May 4, 2022  ■  5 min read

Why failing to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace hurts not only the victims but their employers

The scourge of sexual harassment continues to fester in workplaces everywhere.

In the U.S. alone, a recent survey of more than 800 full-time employees found that 44% have experienced harassment at work.

The study, published in September 2021 by AllVoices, an anonymous reporting service for workplace issues, also determined that 38% experienced harassment remotely — through email, video conferencing, or online work channels — no doubt magnified by the last two years of enforced remote working.

Sending emails, text messages, inappropriate images, as well as jokes, sent online, and statements made in an online meeting all count as sexual harassment, according to Molly Chimhanda, senior manager at Women In News. “Sexual harassment is about power,” she said, “and that power can be exerted through different means. There are overt and covert ways that perpetrators use to exert this power.”

Only half of the respondents from the AllVoices report reported sexual incidents they experienced or witnessed. Most who kept quiet cited worries of retribution, concerns that the accusations wouldn’t be believed, or failure by employers to act on complaints as reasons for staying silent.

But the knock-on effect of that silence doesn’t just harm the victims and reward the perpetrators but hurts organizations too. The cost of staff turnover due to toxic work culture has been estimated at almost $50 billion per year for U.S. companies. The Society of Human Resource Management calculated that in a five-year period the cost of turnover due to toxic office cultures exceeds $223 billion.

Media skews high for harassment

It seems the media industry is where harassment hits hardest. On average, 41% of female journalists (and 12% of male journalists) have experienced verbal and/or physical sexual harassment in the workplace, according to a global study from WAN-IFRA Women in News, published this January. The study, which surveyed newsrooms across 20 countries is said to be the largest of its kind to focus on men, women, and gender non-conforming media professionals throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, Russia, the Arab Region, and select countries in Central America.

Only one in five respondents reported the incidents to their employer.

“They need to know that someone believes they have gone through a traumatic experience,” said Chimhanda. “The [news] organization needs to be a safe environment where victims of sexual harassment can report their cases without fear of the details getting out to the general public. So, HR personnel need to ensure that the workplace is safe — create reporting mechanisms that do not bring further shame to the victim.” Providing psycho-social support for victims would also be useful, in helping victims come forward, Chimhanda added.

The U.S. and U.K. media industries are far from rosy either.

The U.K.’s Trades Union Congress reported in 2019 that 68% of LGBTQ employees were victims of on-the-job sexual wrongdoing and two-thirds of the incidents went unreported because LGBTQ workers feared they’d be fired.

Meanwhile, a 2018 investigation by the New York-based think tank Center for Talent Innovation, involving more than 3,000 white-collar employees aged between 21 and 65 years old currently revealed that the U.S. media industry is the “worst” when it comes to preventing sexual harassment, followed by the technology and consulting industries.

Of employees in the media, which encompasses PR, advertising, video and audio production, broadcasting, entertainment, art/design, publishing, and other communications, 41% of women and 22% of men reported harassment, the Center disclosed.

Fear of retaliation

Veteran journalist Karina Cuevas is among those who have suffered harassment in the workplace.

Cuevas was 24-years old when she started working at a newspaper in Rockford, Illinois. “I was excited to really start my career as a journalist there, but I never thought that I would in a million years get sexually harassed by one of their reporters,” she recalled.

“Growing up in New York City and in the Dominican Republic, you get the catcalls in the street constantly. But I honestly thought that would change in a professional setting,” Cuevas added.

“Instead, this one reporter befriended me and I thought he was just being welcoming by inviting me to lunches with other colleagues. During those lunches, he would make explicit comments about sexual dreams he had with me.” The same behavior spilled over at the office. “[W]hen I used to walk around the office for whatever reason, he would say remarks such as ‘I like my coffee black just like that’ and point to me. No one ever did a thing,” added Cuevas.

Cuevas, who’s now a producer at PBS Newshour, insisted businesses are failing in the fight to keep employees safe. “Sexual harassment will continue to happen unless each company really makes it so the accuser is not retaliated against,” she said.

“There has to be a system in place that once we report it to HR it has to go to a District Attorney’s office or some outside entity that can independently investigate,” Cuevas added, “I don’t trust individual companies to do the right thing anymore.”

Establishing a better male-female balance in leadership teams is critical to moving the needle on the issue, according to Deanna Ransom, the executive director of Women in Revenue, a membership organization for women in revenue-impacting roles. If there was a higher percentage of top brass female execs, sexual harassment and gender bias wouldn’t be as rife, she added. “Companies need to make sexual harassment and gender bias a leadership issue if they truly want to make change,” said Ransom.

Others don’t believe the solution is as simple as putting more women in senior roles. Particularly when there are numerous incidents of women not sticking up for other women, and fuelling toxic workplace environments.

Cuevas said neither her female colleagues nor her editor-in-chief at the Illinois newspaper backed her when she reported the harassment. “I did report it to my supervisor who was another Latina and instead she said I was blowing it all out of proportion. The editor-in-chief also knew and as a woman I thought she would have my back, never happened.” As a result, she left journalism for a number of years.