Inside Sexual Harassment’s Hidden Toll on Equal Pay

6 minute read

For Christa Hayburn, sexual harassment was part of the daily routine as a Philadelphia police officer.

From comments about how she looked in uniform from her coworkers to questions about her relationship status, Hayburn said she tried to minimize the uncomfortable day-to-day interactions and instead focus on the career she was passionate about. It wasn’t until her commanding officer sexually assaulted her that everything changed.

“It skewed everything I once believed. I was more of an object than a peer,” she said. “It hurt my heart because [my job] was who I was. I loved every minute.”

Hayburn says she endured several more years of harassment on the job and reported the sexual assault — later filing then voluntarily withdrawing a lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia for sex discrimination. Her alleged assaulter was temporarily demoted, and another woman later filed another lawsuit against him that was settled for $1.25 million. (The City of Philadelphia declined to comment.) Hayburn said reporting her assault resulted in few actionable consequences. Eventually, she quit her job. Then, she had no income.

Hayburn is one of thousands of employees around the country each year who have experienced sexual harassment or assault in the workplace. The taxing impacts of sexual harassment can have a negative impact on a survivor’s career, according to numerous studies and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Indeed, several studies have found sexual harassment is a contributing factor to the gender wage gap. Women currently earn $0.80 on the dollar to their male counterparts in the United States — and that gap is more pronounced among black and Hispanic women.

The negative effect of sexual harassment can take multiple forms, from a woman leaving her job to escape harassment or getting stonewalled from promotions or raises after denying her boss’s advances, among other situations. While still on the job, Hayburn said, she fought to survive. “Now, I had good work but I really couldn’t function,” she said of her job as a Philly cop. “It was so hard to get up out of bed every day.”

Indeed, women who have experienced sexual harassment are 6.5 times more likely to leave their jobs than those who aren’t, according to 2017 research published by Sociologists for Women in Society. These women often take jobs with lower wages, move to a different industry entirely or reduce the amount of hours they work, says Amy Blackstone, a University of Maine sociology professor who co-authored the 2017 research. By moving jobs, these employees lose their seniority and standing within the company — impacting the timeline of moving up the ladder in pay and promotions, Blackstone added.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency charged with upholding and interpreting federal workplace discrimination laws, reports there were 12,428 sex-based workplace charges filed with them in the 2017 fiscal year, with about half of them related to sexual harassment. The agency, which saw its first funding increase in eight years to better manage these complaints, told TIME 1,175 employees left their jobs in 2017 as a result of sexual harassment, with a total of more than 12,600 employees doing so over the last decade.

“The remedy of having to leave a workplace and start a new job doesn’t help in terms of somebody’s wages,” said Victoria Lipnic, the acting chair of the EEOC. “You can be set back by that. The approach that a lot of people have, that they have to get out of this situation and leave, particularly for women, is a setback in terms of overall compensation.”

In Hayburn’s case, her husband took on a second job to help support their family after she left the job. Eventually, she found a different calling in advocacy and female empowerment, and now works as a leadership and health coach.

Sometimes employees who have been harassed don’t have the option to leave their job even if they wanted to. Lipnic, who recently testified at a hearing from the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues discussion of sexual harassment in the service sector, pointed to hospitality workers as employees who have been put in vulnerable positions and may not be able to leave their jobs for financial reasons.

“They don’t have a lot of abilities to take matters into their own hands and quit and go somewhere else,” Lipnic said. “That can impact the wage gap.”

These hospitality workers also serve as an example of the impacts of occupational segregation — or, the fact that there are certain male-dominated and female-dominated industries and jobs. Oftentimes, sexual harassment serves a contributing factor as to why women can’t enter these male-dominated fields as easily. Ariane Hegewisch, program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said male-dominated jobs, like those in construction, can become hostile places for women and could impact the advancement of their careers as a result.

“A hostile environment and harassment on them means that women can’t perform as well as they otherwise could,” Hegewisch said. “You don’t feel as confident, you don’t feel confident enough to ask questions to become better at your job, you don’t feel that you can excel and you should grow. Your spirit gets dampened if not your health and performance more directly.”

Solving the issues of sexual harassment in the workplace and the gender pay gap go hand-in-hand, a number of powerful female executives said in interviews with TIME ahead of Equal Pay Day. It’s about changing workplace culture to make them better places for women to succeed. That means placing more women on boards and in management positions while creating policies that promote pay transparency and routine payroll audits. On a fundamental level, it means instilling a philosophy that under no circumstances is sexual harassment — or any kind of harassment — acceptable, they said.

“Rather than the onus being on the target of harassment to leave,” Blackstone, the sociology professor, said, “let’s make workplaces where everybody can thrive.”

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