When Work Becomes a War Zone

This year, I became one of the many women who leave their jobs because of sexual harassment. I always knew it was something that happened; I just didn’t think it would happen to me.

I’m not alone; reports have found that 60% of women say they experience “unwanted sexual attention, sexual coercion, sexually crude conduct, or sexist comments” in the workplace. It’s a scary and isolating experience, and deciding what to do about it is difficult. After it happened, I did everything “right.” I didn’t wait, I went directly to my HR representative, and I told the truth. It didn’t matter that I followed protocol; they still didn’t do anything about it. 

The fact that I reported my harassment already puts me in the minority. It’s estimated that 90% of people who are harassed at work never report it, for a variety of reasons. Some workers are undocumented and face the threat of deportation if they come forward, something their abusers know and exploit. Others are afraid of retaliation — a very real fear. 71% of people who report their harassment to The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission also report retaliation. Others simply don’t think they’ll be believed. Every day, women are forced into a situation where they must continue working with their harasser.

I continued working with the man who harassed me for six months. I would hide in the bathroom during downtimes on my shift so that I wouldn’t have to see him. My income went down as I gave shifts away on days I knew he would be working. Eventually, I was able to switch around my hours to avoid him, but even then, I never felt safe at work again. I knew that if anything happened to me, I would not be taken seriously.

So, I quit. But not until I found a new job, which took months, and not without taking a pretty significant pay cut. Again, this is a tragically common occurrence. For many, sexual harassment leads to not only to a decline in mental health, but significant financial stress. One study found that as many as 8 in 10 women who experience sexual harassment leave their job within two years. For some, this means leaving a job before a new one is found and facing the economic hardship of unemployment. For others, this means abandoning well-paying jobs or leaving their field altogether, limiting opportunities for career advancement or tenure. 

It’s also important to note that women of color are disproportionately affected by this. Already, women of color are presumed to be less competent no matter their qualifications. This negatively impacts their potential for professional advancement on top of all the impacts that sexual harassment has on their careers. The power imbalances between women of color and white bosses put them at an even greater risk. In 2016, black women reported harassment at 3.8 times the rate of white women. We know that most women never report their harassment, so it’s likely that the real numbers are much higher.

I paint a bleak picture, I know, but it’s important to understand that this is still happening and that despite all the progress that’s been made, too many employers still don’t take it seriously. It’s important to keep talking about the harassment we face, to continue to speak out against it and not let our stories be ignored or brushed aside. I want to talk about what happened to me because it wasn’t fair. It shouldn’t have happened and I won’t stop shouting until something changes. My story is not unique. I am not alone. And neither are you.  

Additional Information and Resources 

What it’s like to return to work after being sexually harassed

Guide for potential ways to respond if you’re being sexually harassed at work 

Racial disparities in sexual harassment statistics 

More information about workplace sexual harassment