How Sexual Harassment Hurts Careers And What You Can Do About It

This originally appeared on Fem2.0. Republished here with permission.

Thanks to Sheryl Sandberg, the media is focused on the absence of women in positions of leadership and power in the corporate world. Ms. Sandberg offers many thoughtful suggestions on overcoming this situation, but makes just one very brief reference to the impediment caused by sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is in itself an obstacle to women’s success. Indeed, it is prohibited under Federal law only because it operates as a form of gender discrimination at work. How does it amount to discrimination? It results in the affected employee either leaving the workplace or remaining but being less productive and, as a consequence, jeopardizing her potential for raises or advancement.

A worker who experiences sexual harassment may be forced to choose between a professional opportunity with a lecherous creep and a position with less potential. She may find it necessary to lie about her reasons for leaving to her new employer. (Ms. Sandberg cautions that asserting legal protections may chill professional prospects. Imagine the response of a new employer who hears that the candidate is attuned to her legal rights.)

Alternatively, the worker can stay and tolerate the indignities of sexually charged remarks and actions. But if she does, the likelihood that she’ll come to work brimming with enthusiasm is diminished. Her attitude may not be the only casualty. Her productivity may decline, and she may spend more time out of the office. Her health may be affected. Women who experience sexual harassment suffer from physical ailments caused by stress and depression.

Women’s right to be free of discrimination at work was established in the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but sexual harassment wasn’t viewed as violating this right until much later. Sexual harassment as a form of discrimination was first considered in 1974 when a court found that termination of a female employee for rejecting sexual advances did not violate Title VII. This decision was overturned in 1976, and in 1980 the federal agency charged with enforcing the Civil Rights Act issued guidelines recognizing sexual harassment as a form of gender bias.

Thirty-two years later sexual harassment remains a common problem. Studies show that between 50 and 85 percent of women experience it during their careers. Regardless of seniority or career accomplishments, no woman is exempt from sexual harassment. Attorneys, nurses, waitresses, and investment bankers are just a few of those who’ve filed sexual harassment claims recently.

Sexual harassment is not about sex. It is about power. It is a tool of male privilege to intimidate women in the workplace, to keep them out of positions of power and leadership. Psychologist John Gottman said, “Sexual harassment is a subtle rape, and rape is more about fear than sex. Harassment is a way for a man to make a woman vulnerable.”

If you believe you have been sexually harassed, you should take the following steps:

1. Say “no” or object to your treatment clearly. Better to say you’re not interested in dating than to say you’re busy. If the harassment takes the form of crude jokes, say “I find that offensive.” If the harassment doesn’t stop, write the harasser a letter or e-mail requesting that he stop, and keep a copy.

2. Write down specifics of what happened, including the date, place, offensive conduct, and possible witnesses. If there are witnesses, ask them to write up the incident, too. Do this for each instance. Because your claim may boil down to he said/she said, this step is vitally important to enhance your credibility. The written record should not be kept at work.

3. Report the harassment to your supervisor, the human relations department, or other appropriate authority at work. Make the report in writing if possible. This step is particularly important if the person harassing you is a co-worker, client, or customer, because the employer may be unaware of what is happening. Make notes about your meeting.

4. Avoid the temptation to talk about the situation with friends or others at work. You could be subject to a defamation claim. If you need a sympathetic ear, call the job survival helpline maintained by 9 to 5, an organization for working women. RAINN also maintains a hotline for victims of sexual assault (any non-consensual sexual touching).

5. Continue to keep a written record, including the notes described in Step 2 above, copies of all correspondence, and notes of any meetings about your complaint.

6. Review your personnel file. In some states, you have a legal right to make a copy of its contents.

7. Follow whatever “official” procedure your company has for handling sexual harassment complaints. Find it in your employee manual or ask human relations.

8. As these steps escalate, you may suffer physical or psychological damage. See your doctor for help and documentation.

9. Involve your union if you’re unionized.

10. File a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency, or with your state’s fair employment agency. The EEOC hotline is 800-669-4000. Be prompt! The deadline for filing your complaint may be as soon as 180 days from the act of harassment.

11. File a private lawsuit after you have filed with a governmental agency. You can ask a court for money damages, to reinstate you in your job, or to force your employer to adopt practices that would deter future harassment. Because a determination of sexual harassment rests on the facts of each case, an experienced attorney can best evaluate the merits of your claim.

12. Prepare yourself for the results of taking these steps. Your employer may retaliate. You may have trouble finding another job; you may be branded a troublemaker; you may be shunned by other workers (including women); you may open up your personal life to scrutiny by others; you may incur legal fees; and you may feel anxious, isolated, and depressed. Consider joining a support group.

It takes courage and determination to pursue a sexual harassment claim.

Katie is the author of a legal suspense novel Terminal Ambition, which is available on She is an advocate for women and she tweets from k8mcguinness.

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