Sexual harassment remains deeply pervasive in the workplace, wreaking havoc on the lives of survivors. This report fills a gap in our knowledge of the economic costs of sexual harassment for the individual women and men who experience it. Drawing on in-depth interviews with survivors of workplace sexual harassment and stakeholder experts, and a review of the literature, the report provides a detailed pathway for capturing the financial consequences of workplace sexual harassment for individual workers in both the short term and over their lifetimes. The research is based on a collaboration between the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the TIME’S UP Foundation and presents the first step towards identifying the data needed for a comprehensive national assessment of the financial and economic costs of sexual harassment.
Key takeaways from the report include:
The lifetime costs of workplace sexual harassment and retaliation were particularly high for those pushed out of well-paid, men-dominated occupations, reaching $1.3 million for an apprentice in the construction trades. While lower earnings and lower job quality in many women-dominated service sector jobs mean that the costs of harassment are lower, for one fast-food worker forced out of her job, lifetime costs still totaled over $125,600.
Job loss and unemployment due to workplace sexual harassment are major contributors to individuals’ costs. All those interviewed experienced at least some loss of work or forced job change. The cost of a single year out of work for an apprentice in a construction occupation translates into a lifetime loss of $230,864 due to lost wage progression and foregone benefits.
Losing valuable pension and health insurance benefits are common consequences of workplace sexual harassment and retaliation. Losing employer-sponsored health insurance forced many of those interviewed to forego healthcare and therapy altogether (because they were unable to afford it) or to face high out-of-pocket costs. Reduced pension and Social Security contributions additionally translate into less economic security in old age.
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.
Sexual harassment contributes to the gender wage gap. Case studies in the report show how women were pushed out of well-paying careers—including in fields dominated by men such as construction, trucking, and IT—into lower-paid or less regular employment.
The “knock-on,” or consequential, costs of sexual harassment were severe for those working in low-paid jobs. Loss of earnings translated into higher financial charges, lower credit ratings, mounting student loan debt, repossession of cars, evictions from housing, including temporary homelessness, and reduced retirement security.
Policies designed to prevent workplace sexual harassment are not working. For every individual interviewed, the costs were magnified because those best-positioned to help address the harmful behavior (supervisors, human resources staff, colleagues) failed to act—or even worse, retaliated against the individuals. High costs of legal representation, lack of information, and uncertainty over immigration status left the large majority of those who experienced workplace sexual harassment and retaliation without legal recourse.
The research confirms common risk factors of sexual harassment and retaliation. Individuals interviewed repeatedly cited similar circumstances, including work in men-dominated industries, in physically isolated workplaces, in situations of substantial power imbalance, including due to immigration status, and in industries with no clear channels for reporting harassment because of subcontracting, franchising, and other decentralized employment structures. Often these risk factors overlapped.
The dearth of nationally representative data on sexual harassment and its costs—both to individuals and the broader economy—is unacceptable. No data sources allow analysis by occupation and industry of the prevalence or the consequences of harassment, let alone data that are detailed enough to fully analyze and explore the intersectional nature and impact of harassment on the women, men, and non-binary people who face harassment at the cross-sections of multiple oppressions. Such data are urgently needed to establish benchmarks and allow us to track progress in tackling harassment over time.