In the United States, 25% of women and 17% of men will be sexual abused or assaulted in their lifetimes. Even more disturbing, every 98 seconds an individual is sexually assaulted based on reports by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.
These rates of sexual assault are far higher than the rates of breast cancer diagnosis or childhood poverty, indicating that sexual harassment is a significant social issue with even broader consequences, including homelessness, incarceration, lack of education, and mental and physical ailments. Furthermore, 26 public-school districts across the U.S. agreed in 2017 to at least $37 million in settlements resulting from allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault of students, teachers or other employees based on reports from The Wall Street Journal.
Clearly, this is a pervasive and deeply rooted problem. Jane Fonda, celebrity actor and activist, has suggested that “in order to root out the problem today, we must understand that working-class women, women of color, trans women, and disabled women constantly experience harassment, assault, and rape—and they’re more likely to be fired if they speak up.” Others have emphasized the importance of companies publishing statements that reaffirm the commitment to ethical and supportive reporting processes in response to the recent sexual harassment allegations made against high ranking officials and men in a variety of professional fields.
Despite the steady momentum that has carried sweeping changes and the firing of high profile men in public postings, sexual harassment lawyers have indicated that sexual harassment is incredibly difficult to prove legally, as it requires severe or pervasive behaviors to have merit in the courts. This supports the claim that businesses, academia, and professional organizations must reevaluate their conduct policies and procedures.
Given the continued difficulty of discerning red tape and societal pressures to view sexual harassment and violence as more than simply an internal policy issue or women’s issue, it is essential that businesses and organizations alike are educated on the impact and prevalence of sexual harassment. The current political climate and the general lack of public knowledge has led to a perpetuation of what the Chronicle of Philanthropy called a “culture of silence.” A 2017 web poll conducted by The Business Journal indicated that 66 percent of respondents had witnessed or experienced sexually inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
Evidently, the silent status quo has allowed sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior to prevail in professional settings. And, although the #MeToo movement experienced its Malcolm Gladwell style “tipping point” in the past year following the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the outpouring of white female actresses acknowledging their sexual assault experiences, this began long before the social media wave. Instead, the first #MeToo campaign began with Black activist Tarana Burke in 2006. Before this, Anita Hill brought sexual harassment into the spotlight while withstanding humiliation in 1991, and still earlier were legal cases brought forth as early as 1975 by brave African American women seeking fair treatment in the workplace.
Considering the prevalence of sexual assault and its dire consequences, it is quite clear more protections are needed in the workplace. That said, until we change as a society, these policy changes may be limited in their impact. This is not to say that organizations should resist the societal pressures to increase accountability and provide workplace anti-harassment training. Instead, we should be aware of the reactive nature of many policies and consider the likeliness that workplace trainings won’t be beneficial until preventative, societal level measures are successfully integrated.
Megan Glasmann is a Ph.D. candidate in the School Psychology Department at the University of Utah.