Since the revelations broke about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, more and more sexual harassment allegations have come to light. Just this week, people came forward with allegations about actor Kevin Spacey, journalist Mark Halperin, NPR editor Michael Oreskes and more.
The cost of sexual harassment to businesses is well documented in the form of settlements, lost work time and loss of business. But what about the economic and career costs for the people who experience sexual harassment?
Heather McLaughlin, an assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University, is one of the few people who has looked into this. She studied the economic and career effects of sexual harassment on working women and interviewed them about their experiences. She joined Marketplace Weekend’s Lizzie O’Leary for a discussion about her findings. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
Lizzie O’Leary: Yours is one of the few studies that attempts to measure the cost of sexual harassment. Why did you decide to do this?
Heather McLaughlin: We were really interested in trying to look at some of the more tangible effects of sexual harassment. There’s a lot of research that shows that sexual harassment can have long-term mental health effects for working women and men who experience sexual harassment. But it was more difficult to really look at those tangible economic career effects. So that’s a question that really really wanted to tackle.
O’Leary: Well, what did you find was sort of the most immediate cost for women who had been harassed?
McLaughlin: So, most immediately, we found that a really large percentage of women quit their jobs. That’s not all that surprising, unfortunately. At the time of our research, we were looking at women who were in their late 20s. A little over half of women started a new job in this two-year window that we were looking at. But for those who experienced more severe sexual harassment, it was 80 percent.
McLaughlin: So women were quitting their jobs either because of the sexual harassment itself or because of the way that the sexual harassment was handled. They were quitting their jobs and they were also reporting more immediate financial stress.
O’Leary: You also look long term and you found that women who experience harassment actually saw their wages stagnate. What was going on there?
McLaughlin: Yeah. We found that a lot of women who quit their jobs were starting over in new careers entirely. So some of them were able to find comparable jobs in the same field. But many of them, this really affected the types of jobs that they were looking for. So they wanted to work in a field where, you know, for example, they thought that sexual harassment was less likely to occur.
Pam is a really great example of this. Pam was working as an accountant for a bank, and she had been there for about four years. One day, one of her co-workers came up to her and said, “Hey, Pam, did you ever wonder why Billy uses this photocopier over here instead of the one that’s closest to his desk?”
And Pam said, “No, why? What’s up?”
And her co-worker said, “Oh, you’re kidding me right?”
So he went on to name all of these things that had been happening. Bill would stare and leer at her. He would engage in lewd gestures. He drew pictures of Pam on his computer and showed people. So Pam was outraged. She was, understandably, really upset that this happened. She talked to her employer.
So the employer reprimanded Bill and said, “Hey, you can’t do this stuff.”
But she was really upset that more wasn’t done here. And she also felt really betrayed by her co-workers. When this was investigated, they all kind of corroborated the story and said this had been happening. But no one ever told her before this. No one ever confronted Bill directly. She said that she just really had a hard time trusting people after that. She ended up cutting her hours back at the bank. Eventually, she started working with a computer hardware company.
She told us, “You know, this isn’t something that I’m interested in. I don’t care about computer hardware. I took this job because I feel like I had to.” You know, she said, “I went to a position where I’m pretty much solitary. I work by myself, which is the way that I want it.” So you can really see how that can affect some women’s career trajectories and the types of jobs that they’re interested in after something like this happens.
O’Leary: A lot of what you’re talking about here is work environment, you know, a hostile work environment, but then also how a supervisor or colleagues respond. And, I guess, I’m curious when you spoke with women who had experienced harassment, what did they say about whether they had sort of supportive responses from the people around them or not?
McLaughlin: Yes, so you know, that’s a really great question. In Pam’s case, she said her co-workers did support her. They seem just as outraged too, and they really turned their backs on this person. But no one did that until she started this complaint, right? So I think that workplace culture is a really important part of this story with sexual harassment. Lisa, for example, she worked at an ad agency, and she described this environment as really misogynistic. Men would often drink and go to strip clubs. And so when she exposed this hostile work environment, she said that after that she was watched really closely by people. She saw her responsibilities slowly being taken away. Her relationships deteriorated.
This is a quote from her interview. She said, “I would never become friends with these people. My boss would never be a mentor. I would never have any relationships with these people. So that was rough, and finally I just quit — that’s it, I’m out of here. I’ll eat rice and live in the dark if I have to.”
So I think that this really reveals that a lot of working women are saying, “I’d much rather just quit and escape this environment than stick around and try to change it.” And many times they didn’t feel like they had the power to really do that, you know, especially in cases like this where even when they tried, people turn their backs on them.
O’Leary: I have to ask — someone could listen to this interview and say, “Well, yeah, but quitting is voluntary.” What would you say to that?
McLaughlin: Yeah, I think that this is a less than voluntary decision. People are forced out of these jobs when you have the decision of whether or not to go into work today and experience these types of behaviors again. So, do I really want to get up again this morning and go in and experience unwanted touching? Or staring? Or leering? Or comments about my body and what I’m wearing? So, yes it’s voluntary, in the sense that they make that decision not to show up. But the long-term consequences this has, it’s not easy. It’s not easy for people to make those decisions to put your own economic standing at risk in order to get out of these types of harassing scenarios.
O’Leary: You really zeroed in on these sort of early career or early mid-career women. And what seems to me is at play there is this question of power dynamics, right? It’s hard to know at 26 that you’re ever going to be 42 and the boss. Do you have a sense of whether the harassment these women reported inhibited their ability to get to more senior positions?
McLaughlin: A lot of these women who were working in high-paying jobs did leave those and pursue work in fields that they expected sexual harassment to be less likely to occur. And, for some of them, that meant jobs that were more dominated by women. So there were fewer men there. So they thought that they would be less at risk. But we also know that a lot of those types of jobs often come with less pay. So they might be able to, but I’m not sure if they would be able to move up as quickly or not in those fields. There’s also research suggesting that men experience a glass escalator where they move up more quickly to positions of authority. Even in women-dominated fields. So I don’t know about management authority, but certainly they’re being shuffled into fields that are associated with lower pay because of the harassment.
O’Leary: Can you put a dollar figure on what these women lost by being harassed?
McLaughlin: You know, I can’t. I think it depends on these different cases. And I think the reality is that a lot of women are experiencing sexual harassment that isn’t being captured in our research. So we certainly found this relationship where for those that we know experienced harassments, their earnings stagnated. But that might even be underestimating the extent to which sexual harassment impacts women’s careers, because, I imagine, that some women in the other group also experienced it as well.
O’Leary: Before I let you go, why do you think there is so little research on this? I mean, I raised a skeptical eyebrow, and I say, “Gee, 85 percent of economists are male.” Why isn’t anyone studying this more?
McLaughlin: Yeah, I think that sexual harassment is difficult to study. We can ask people if they’ve experienced any of these behaviors. But we can also ask people whether they would apply the term sexual harassment to what they’re going through. And we see pretty big discrepancies there. But also I think we especially need research from the perspective of harassers, which is even more difficult. Why do individuals in these positions of power abuse that using this particular mechanism of sexual harassment? I think that needs to be further explored and analyzed.