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Hidden Costs

A recent report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) and the TIME’S UP Foundation shows that workplace sexual harassment has large financial costs and economic consequences.

The report, “Paying Today and Tomorrow: Charting the Financial Costs of Workplace Sexual Harassment, is the first-ever attempt to monetize the lifetime financial costs of sexual harassment to individual women. Among those interviewed, workplace sexual harassment cost individuals anywhere from $600 to $1.3 million or more over a lifetime, depending on the wages of the worker.

The report shows how sexual harassment contributes to the gender wage gap and limits women’s earning potential. These costs can be seen through job loss and unemployment, lower earnings, missed opportunities for advancement, forced job changes, and loss of critical employer-sponsored benefits like health insurance and pension contributions. The financial impact of workplace sexual harassment can be detrimental and long-lasting to those who experience it.

“As employers rethink their post-COVID workplaces, we need to ensure that work — whether it’s remote or in the office — is safe, dignified, and equitable.”

The short-term and long-term impact on the economic security of those working in low-wage jobs can be particularly severe. Workers in lower-income occupations and those impacted by historical racial and ethnic discrimination were more likely to be in economically precarious situations without significant savings. A $600 wage loss can quickly translate into increased debts and credit card fees, eviction, homelessness, and food insecurity.

“As employers rethink their post-COVID workplaces, we need to ensure that work — whether it’s remote or in the office — is safe, dignified, and equitable,” said C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of IWPR. “This report shows the different ways sexual harassment imposes financial and economic costs to women workers.”

Added Jessica Forden of the TIME’S UP Foundation, “no person should ever choose between reporting sexual harassment or speaking up for themselves while considering whether they might lose their ability to feed their families or take their children to the doctor. When we think about the true cost of sexual harassment, we have to think about what’s at stake when women come forward and how this impacts not just them, but everyone around them: their families, communities, and more.”

For every individual interviewed, the experiences of harassment were compounded, and the costs magnified, because those who could have addressed the harassment (including supervisors, human resources staff, and colleagues) failed to act, and, even worse, often retaliated against the employees who were harassed. Few were able to seek legal advice, being kept away by uncertain immigration status, lack of funds, or lack of information on their rights.

Based on in-depth interviews with survivors of workplace sexual harassment, as well as with experts, the report charts the detailed pathways that lead to financial costs to individual workers as a result of workplace sexual harassment and retaliation. Key findings from the report include:

• The costs to economic security are particularly profound for workers in low-paid jobs. While lower earnings and lower job quality in many women-dominated service-sector jobs mean that the monetary costs of harassment are lower for those in these positions, for one fast-food worker forced out of her job, lifetime costs still totaled more than $125,600.

• The lifetime costs of workplace sexual harassment and retaliation were particularly high for those pushed out of well-paid, male-dominated occupations, reaching $1.3 million for an apprentice in the construction trades. The cost of a single year out of work for another apprentice in a construction occupation translates into a lifetime loss of $230,864 due to lost wage progression and foregone benefits.

• Forced career change may necessitate paying for new degrees or credentials. These costs came to almost $70,000 for one woman, reflecting direct tuition costs for a two-year community-college degree plus lost earnings over two years as she pursued her new degree.

The report suggests that culture change, company change, and governmental change are all needed for prevention and accountability.

“It’s clear from our interviews that a lack of enforcement is a part of what’s missing,” said report co-author Ariane Hegewisch of IWPR. “Sexual-harassment policies alone will not work unless there are consequences when they are broken.”

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