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The Ongoing Struggle Against Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Owen H. Laird

As we move into 2018, it is worth reflecting on one of the most significant developments of 2017: sexual harassment becoming a topic of national discussion. In the past year, scores of people—primarily, but not exclusively, women—came forward and told their stories of harassment, abuse, and assault. As a result, dozens of high-profile individuals were fired, suspended, or forced to resign. Politicians, business leaders, media personalities, actors, writers, and other celebrities all faced public disgrace for their actions.

While these cases focus public attention on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, the unfortunate reality is that these high-publicity cases represent only a miniscule fraction of the incidents of sexual harassment and assault that people in the workplace face. The media rarely covers the stories of people working in low-wage, low-profile jobs who face sexual harassment or assault. Restaurant workers, office workers, home health aides, and hospitality workers all face high levels of harassment, and—as many Americans cannot afford to lose their jobs—victims go silent out of fear of retaliation.

Behind many of the stories of harassment and assault that have arisen over the past several months lies a power imbalance: the studio executive taking advantage of aspiring actresses, the celebrity abusing crew members, the politician harassing staff. These power imbalances are even greater for low-wage workers toiling in the dark, particularly single mothers, undocumented immigrants, or employees who depend on their employers for immigration status. Victims of workplace sexual assault often do not go to the police, and victims of workplace sexual harassment often do not speak up to management; they remain silent for any number of reasons, many of which boil down to the fear of what might happen if they fight back against someone with so much power over them.

Recent polls show that nearly half of all women in the workforce, and nearly ten percent of men, have faced sexual harassment at some point. The New York Times recently conducted a poll asking men about their behavior in the workplace, and nearly a third admitted to engaging in behavior that could be harassing. The men polled represent the entire spectrum of the American workforce, including varied jobs, political affiliations, education levels, and salaries, and the survey goes into great detail about the type of harassment or assault they committed. For example, two percent of the men surveyed—or roughly 12 out of 600—admitted to sexually coercing someone at work in the last year. Extrapolated to the male workforce as a whole, that would mean hundreds of thousands of men attempted to coerce a coworker into sex in 2017 alone.

It is clear that workplace harassment is pervasive in American society. Even the first few days of 2018 have already included more high-profile accusations and resignations. With new revelations continuing to appear in the media on a daily basis, we can only hope that the past months represent a turning point in public attention to such harassment, rather than a temporary concern, and that future victims will be more likely to be believed and less likely to be subjected to shaming and ridicule for coming forward.

If you have been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted at work, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.