Sexual Harassment and the Working Woman

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Sexual Harassment and the Working Woman

If money talks, it could have a welcome word for victims and potential victims of sexual harassment. Findings of a recent study of sexual harassment at Fortune 500 companies, conducted by Working Woman magazine, indicate that the total annual cost of such harassment at each firm is approximately $6,719,593 -- a figure that fairly shouts. Advocates of antiharassment programs hope that the finding will alert management to the dramatic impact that sexual harassment has not only on the employees who are victimized, but also on the organization itself.

The annual cost was calculated by Freada Klein, president of Klein Associates, Inc. of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Mary Rowe, special assistant to the president at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and adjunct professor at MIT's school of management. Klein, a management consultant who specializes in sexual harassment cases, analyzed the responses to the 49-question Working Woman survey, and wrote "The 1988 Working Woman Sexual Harassment Survey Executive Report."

The figure is based on the survey's other findings--including the prevalence of sexual harassment--and on findings from other studies about how employees who experience sexual harassment typically react.

The $6,719,593 includes the costs incurred when employees quit their jobs because of harassment; stay at their jobs but become less productive; take leaves of absence; or seek assistance either within or outside the company. The figure does not include costs to the company for litigation or as a result of destructive behavior or sabotage.

The Survey and Respondents In March 1988, Working Woman mailed the questionnaire and a cover letter guaranteeing confidentiality to the top HR professionals--typically vice-presidents of HR--at the Fortune 500 service and manufacturing companies (the 500 largest manufacturing and the 500 largest service firms in the United States). Sixteen percent, or 160, of the questionnaires were completed and returned.

The respondents included firms in 31 states and the District of Columbia. They represented a wide range of industries, including the financial, utilities, retail, insurance, transportation, food, and chemical fields.

Women made up at least half of the workforce in 43% of the responding companies, but they were not distributed evenly throughout all levels of the firms. Only 7% of senior managers and 23% of middle managers were women at the firms, although 46% of full-time employees there were women.

Klein pointed out that although the original 1000 firms contacted represented a random sampling in terms of their attitudes and policies regarding sexual harassment, those who chose to respond were likely to be unusually concerned about the issue. Thus their responses may reflect more sympathy for the victims, and they may have instituted more active programs of invention and discipline, than most firms have.

How Much Harassment? The survey results showed that sexual harassment is widespread--but not random--in today's workplace. Twenty-five percent of the responding firms had received six or more formal complaints of sexual harassment during the past year, and 21% had received four or five complaints. Thirteen percent reported that they had received no complaints. The majority of the complaints were against an individual higher up on the corporate ladder: Thirty-six percent were against the immediate supervisor, and 26% were against a more powerful person; 32% were against co-workers.

Fewer Women Means Greater Danger Formal complaint rates were highest in firms where the workforce was at least 75% male (1.9 complaints per thousand women employees per year) and in financial services firms (1.6 per thousand women per year). The lowest complaint rate--0.9 per thousand women employees per year--occurred in corporations whose workforces were at least 75% female. …