Utah is making no progress in combating sexual harassment in the workplace, research shows
Utah is making no progress in combating sexual harassment in the workplace, research shows

According to a recently updated study by the Utah Women and Leadership Project, Utah is making no progress on sexual harassment in the workplace.

Of all complaints filed with Utah’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2022, 38.3% involved sex discrimination, which includes sexual harassment, the third highest rate in the country.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment is any “unwelcome sexual advances, solicitations or favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” particularly when such conduct creates a hostile or offensive work environment, interferes with a person’s job performance, or unreasonably affects their employment.

While sexual harassment is most often discussed as a problem that happens to women at the hands of men, any gender can be the perpetrator or the victim—according to a 2018 national study, 81% of women and 43% of men have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime.

The harasser does not have to hold a management position or be an employee of the company; it can also be a supplier or customer.

A clear definition of sexual harassment is essential for accurate data. Recent surveys found that when asked if they had experienced sexual harassment without a definition provided, 25% of women answered “yes.” However, when sexual harassment was defined and examples were given, this number rose to 60%.

Lack of reporting

The rate of formal sexual harassment charges in Utah is about the national average, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the total number of charges has declined over the past two years.

While that sounds like encouraging news, Kolene Anderson, deputy director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project, said it indicates a lack of reporting, not a lack of sexual harassment. According to a report by a sexual harassment task force at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 87 to 95 percent of people who experience sexual harassment do not file a formal complaint.

“Studies show that about 70% of people don’t even report the incident within their own organization,” Anderson said.

This lack of reporting is likely due to several factors. Some may not realize that their experiences warrant legal action, and others may fear consequences. Of the sexual harassment allegations reported to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 2018 to 2021, 43.5% were accompanied by retaliation claims, which is when a worker is punished for exercising their right not to be discriminated against.

A 2023 study by the Utah Women and Leadership Project also found that 44.5% of Utahns were unsure of what resources were available or how to use them.

However, one of the biggest factors may be a lack of trust. The 2023 study also found that 59.8% of respondents were very or somewhat distrustful of most Utah organizations when it comes to appropriately handling reports of sexual harassment.

Vulnerable groups

The study found that certain populations and environments are at increased risk for sexual harassment. For example, the National Women’s Center found that undocumented immigrants may be at risk of sexual harassment because their abusers assume they will not report it for fear of deportation.

Although most research concerns white women, women of color are more likely to experience sexual harassment. According to U.S. Labor Statistics, black and Hispanic women are most likely to be employed in low-paying service jobs, where sexual harassment is most commonly reported. Women of color can also experience intersectional harassment.

LGBTQ+ people are also at risk. In one survey, 35% of LGBTQ+ respondents said they had been harassed, and in another survey, 58% said they had heard derogatory comments about their sexual orientation in the workplace.

According to a 2019 study by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, teenagers are at risk for a variety of reasons, including working in more unstructured and unsupervised environments, lack of awareness of human resources policies and reporting processes, and a more pronounced power imbalance between them and adult supervisors or employers.

According to a Harvard study, young women were more likely than older women to report having been sexually harassed. This may be because they seem to be easier victims due to their youth or inexperience at work, but also due to generational differences in defining and discussing harassment.

The type of employment is also an important factor in sexual harassment. Just over half of the reports to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from four industries – accommodation and food services, retail, manufacturing, and health and human services.

These industries have either a very high or a very low percentage of women. But Anderson says it’s not so much a question of the ratio of men to women, but rather a question of a power imbalance.

“For example, if you have employees in the accommodation and food service industry who rely on tips, that’s a vulnerability,” Anderson said. “On the other hand, if they’re in the minority, there’s automatically a power imbalance just because there are fewer of them.”

Opportunities for improvement

How can companies regain that trust and create a safer work environment? One way might be to change their approach to sexual assault education and training.

“Currently, most organizations approach sexual harassment training with the mindset of teaching behaviors that we don’t want,” Anderson said. “And in that situation, employees who receive that training can begin to perceive themselves as potential suspects. And that can really backfire and lead to backlash.”

According to a 2014 study, focusing on unacceptable behavior was almost ineffective in preventing sexual harassment.

Anderson said current training courses – which she calls “the dreaded click-through online training” – also lack any evaluation or follow-up and are generally aimed at avoiding legal liability rather than inspiring organizational or attitudinal change.

Instead, the study suggests that training should be regular, interactive, tailored to the target audience within the organization and focused on the corporate culture that it Do want to see, not unacceptable behavior. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidelines, systems for handling complaints of sexual harassment should be comprehensive, accessible and consistent. They should also meet the needs and desires of the person making the report.

Diverse leadership can build trust and lead to more effective policies.

“We need female leaders,” Anderson said, “because if they are more likely to have experienced sexual harassment themselves, they will also be more sensitive and understanding about how to implement best practices.”

By Isla