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Utah isn't making progress on workplace sexual harassment, research finds

An office with people sitting at rows of desks working at computers.
Alex Kotliarskyi

Utah isn’t making progress on sexual harassment in the workplace, according to recently updated research by the Utah Women and Leadership Project.

Of the total Utah complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2022, 38.3% were sex-based discrimination, which includes sexual harassment. That’s the third highest in the nation.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment is any “unwelcome sexual advances, request or sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” specifically when that conduct creates a hostile or offensive work environment, affects an individual’s work performance, or affects their employment unreasonably.

While sexual harassment is most commonly discussed as an issue that happens to women by men, any gender can be the harasser or the victim — according to a national study in 2018, 81% of women and 43% of men have been sexually harassed in their lifetime.

The harasser also doesn’t need to be in an authority position or even an employee of the company, as it can be a vendor or a customer.

Having a clear definition of sexual harassment is vital for accurate data — recent surveys found that when women were asked if they’d experienced sexual harassment without an accompanying definition, 25% of women said yes. When sexual harassment was defined and examples were given, however, that number rose to 60%.

Lack of reporting

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

While this may sound like encouraging news, Kolene Anderson, associate director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project, said this indicates a lack of reporting, not a lack of sexual harassment. Between 87-95% of those who experience sexual harassment don’t file a formal legal complaint, according to a report from a sexual harassment task force with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

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

This lack of reporting is likely caused by several factors. Some may not realize their experiences justify legal action, and others may fear repercussions. Of the sexual harassment charges reported to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 2018 to 2021, 43.5% were accompanied by retaliation charges, which is when an employee is punished for asserting their right not to face discrimination.

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

One of the biggest factors, however, may be lack of trust. The 2023 study also found that 59.8% of respondents strongly or somewhat distrusted most Utah organizations to appropriately handle a sexual harassment report.

Vulnerable groups

The research snapshot found that certain populations and environments are at elevated risk of sexual harassment. The National Women’s Center found that undocumented immigrants, for example, may face sexual harassment because their harassers assume they would avoid reporting due to fear of deportation.

Though most research has been done on white women, women of color are more likely to experience sexual harassment. Black and Hispanic women are most likely to be employed in low-paying service occupations, according to U.S. Labor Statistics, which is where sexual harassment is most frequently reported. Women of color can also face intersectional harassment.

LGBTQ+ individuals are also at risk. In one survey, 35% of LGBTQ+ respondents said they’d been harassed, and in another, 58% said they’d heard derogatory comments about sexual orientation at work.

Teenagers are vulnerable for a variety of reasons, according to research by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in 2019. This includes working in more unstructured and unsupervised environments, not knowing human resources policies and reporting processes, and having a more pronounced power imbalance between them and adult supervisors or employers.

A Harvard study found young women were more likely than older women to say they'd been sexually harassed. It noted this may be because their youth or professional inexperience makes them seem like easier targets, but may also be due to generational differences in defining and discussing harassment.

Job type is also a large factor in sexual harassment. A little over half of reports to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from four industries — accommodations and food services, retail trade, manufacturing, and healthcare and social assistance.

These industries have either a very high or very low percentage of women. But according to Anderson, it’s less about the ratio of men to women and more about power imbalance.

“If you have employees that are in accommodations and food services, for example, that depend on tips ... that creates a vulnerability,” Anderson said. “On the flip side, when they’re in the minority, there’s automatically a power imbalance just because there’s fewer of them.”

Ways to improve

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

“Right now, most organizations approach sexual harassment training from the lens of teaching behaviors that are not what we want to happen,” Anderson said. “And what can happen in that situation is that employees receiving that training perceive themselves as potential suspects. And that can really backfire, that can create some backlash.”

One study from 2014 found that focusing on unacceptable behaviors was almost entirely ineffective for preventing sexual harassment.

Anderson said current trainings — what she refers to as “the dreaded click-through online training” — also don’t have any sort of evaluation or follow-up and are generally intended to prevent legal liability, not to inspire organizational change or shift in attitudes.

Instead, the research snapshot suggested that trainings should be regular, interactive, tailored to the audience within the organization, and focused on the workplace culture they do want to see, rather than unacceptable behaviors. According to guidelines from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the systems handling sexual harassment complaints should be comprehensive, accessible, and consistent. They should also cater to the needs and requests of the person reporting.

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

“We have to have female leadership,” Anderson said, “because if they are more likely to have experienced sexual harassment, then they themselves will have more sensitivity and more understanding about how best practices can be adopted.”

Duck is a general reporter and weekend announcer at UPR, and is studying broadcast journalism and disability studies at USU. They grew up in northern Colorado before moving to Logan in 2018, so the Rocky Mountain life is all they know. Free time is generally spent with their dog, Monty, listening to podcasts, reading or wishing they could be outside more.