Formal complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace have declined over the past 20 years. But according to new research, this good news comes with an asterisk.
A new study reports that a racial gap has opened up over the years, to the point where black women are much more likely than their white counterparts to report being sexually harassed.
The study's co-authors, Dan Cassino of Fairleigh Dickinson University and Yasemin Besen-Cassino of Montclair State University, say this finding reflects the fact that black women are perceived as having relatively little power in workplaces, and are therefore viewed as being less likely to file a complaint.
"It seems as though men have gotten more careful about who they're harassing, and have been targeting women of color," Cassino said in announcing the findings, which also reveal that reports of harassment tend to increase in periods when the unemployment rate is rising.
The study, published in the journal Gender, Work and Organization, analyzes information compiled by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, including its publicly released annual reports, alongside a more detailed set of data originally released to the website BuzzFeed as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.
Aggregating the data, the researchers discovered several distinct patterns.
"In 1997, the first year that the United States federal EEOC began releasing detailed data on reported complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace, it logged 16,000 such reports," the researchers write. "In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, that figure had fallen to 9,600—a decline of more than 40 percent over 20 years."
Breaking these numbers down by race, however, revealed that this decline was much steeper for white women than for black women.
"The likelihood that an individual white woman would report sexual harassment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dropped by more than 70 percent between 1996 and 2016," the researchers report. "The rate for African-American women dropped by only 38 percent."
"In 1996, African-American women were 1.7 times as likely as white women to report sexual harassment to the EEOC. In 2016, they were 3.8 times more likely to do so."
For Cassino and Besen-Cassino, these findings provide evidence that sexual harassment is largely about asserting and enjoying control.
"Sexual harassment in the workplace is an expression of power—a way for men to assert their dominance," they conclude. "The shift from sexual harassment of white women to African-American women indicates that harassers are conscious of power relationships, and choose to target more vulnerable women in their workplaces."
The researchers also compared harassment complaint rates with national unemployment data, and found a correlation.
"A higher unemployment rate in one month leads to an increase in the number of reported harassment cases the following month," they report. "About one-third of the change in workplace sexual harassment reported to the EEOC can be attributed to changes in the national unemployment rate the previous month," they write.
The researchers argue that this finding, too, reflects shifting power dynamics in the workplace. "When the unemployment rate goes up, producing greater social strain and a need to assert dominance, reported sexual harassment goes up as well," they write.
In sum, these findings provide evidence of the psychological and societal forces that together help drive sexual harassment. It finds that men who are feeling vulnerable are more likely to engage in inappropriate behavior as a way to feel powerful—and they tend to aim that behavior at people they perceive as being even less powerful, and thus unlikely to retaliate with much success.