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The Economic Price of Sexual Harassment

Research finds being subjected to workplace misconduct can inhibit women's careers.
Marchers protest sexual harassment, assault, and abuse during a #MeToo demonstration in Hollywood, California, on November 12th, 2017.

Marchers protest sexual harassment, assault, and abuse during a #MeToo demonstration in Hollywood, California, on November 12th, 2017. 

As more and more women come forward to accuse powerful men of sexual harassment, Americans are coming to understand the very real emotional toll of such experiences. But recent research finds that, for many women, there is a significant financial cost as well.

A team led by sociologist Heather McLaughlin of Oklahoma State University examined how being sexually harassed affects women who are in the early stages of their chosen careers.

"Harassment at age 29–30 increases financial stress in the early 30s," the researchers report in the journal Gender and Society. It does so "largely by precipitating job change," they add, "and can significantly alter women's career attainment."

The study featured a mix of in-depth interviews and survey data from the Youth Development Study, comprising 1,105 Minnesotans who were ninth graders in 1988. These subjects were surveyed periodically through their young-adult years; the researchers used their responses to measure the economic effects of harassment.

"Women who experienced unwanted touching or multiple harassing behaviors in 2003 reported significantly greater financial stress in 2005," they report. "Some of this strain may be due to career disruption, as harassment targets were especially likely to change jobs."

"This effect is comparable to experiencing other negative life events (such as) serious injury or illness, incarceration, assault," they add. "While most women's earnings increased throughout young adulthood," those of many harassed women either stalled or declined.

Interviewing 19 participants in the larger study, all women who reported being sexual harassed at work, McLaughlin and her colleagues heard vivid stories that confirmed the statistical results.

"Even when targets were able to find work right away, harassment contributed to financial strain for several interview participants," they write. "Interviewees attributed this to (temporary) unemployment and career uncertainty, diminished hours or pay, and the anxiety associated with starting over in a new position."

After suffering harassment in the workplace, several of the women interviewed pursued "less lucrative careers where they believed sexual harassment and sexist practices would be less likely to occur," the researchers write.

"Job change, industry change, and reduced work hours were common," they add. "Although some found an equivalent or higher-paying position, some women's earnings fell precipitously in subsequent years."

Others stayed in their jobs, at least for a while, but found that harassment took an emotional toll and sapped their motivation, in part because they no longer trusted their bosses or colleagues.

McLaughlin and her colleagues add that these findings did not vary by social class. "Women in pink- and blue-collar occupations are affected by sexual harassment in the same way as women in white-collar careers," they write.

So when we're tallying the costs of sexual misconduct, it's important to remember that many if not most victims are young adults who are just setting out in their careers. A toxic work environment can thwart their plans—and damage their earning potential, both present and future.