Ellen starting working at a human rights organization in January a number of years ago. She shared a small office with her boss, and by the summer, he made a direct pass at her. She turned him down, and at first the rejection seemed to stick. But then about a year later he started trying again, telling her she was beautiful, trying to kiss her and touch her. At one point he actually put his hand down her shirt. She pushed him away—and then things started escalating quickly and severely.
“My boss would straight up masturbate to me while I was there,” she said. In their office, he would push her to join in, despite her refusals, and insisted that work not resume until he finished. “I couldn’t leave, because we had work that needed to be done,” she said. “We were a human rights organization, so it mattered.”
The abuse continued for about a year. “I was really ashamed about it and really freaked out about it,” she said. “I didn’t tell anyone about it for a really long time.” She didn’t report his behavior to the director of the organization because she feared retaliation. “I was afraid that the big boss wouldn’t believe me,” she said, especially since he had worked with her abusive boss for a long time. The director had also made it clear that her job was dependent on her boss. “The day I was signing the contract, the big boss took me aside and made it very clear to me…you have a job as long as this man wants you there,” she said. “He kind of laughed and he said, ‘As long as you keep him happy you have a job.’”
She eventually decided she had to leave—the job, the field, even the country, even though she didn’t have any other work lined up. “I just quit and left and tried to figure out something else,” she said. “That was the nail in the coffin for my human rights career.” She had originally thought she would try to get a similar job in the same city. “I realized I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I was afraid to do that.”
Ellen’s decision to leave, rather than put up with harassment or report it to superiors, is dangerously common. In a massive report released in 2016 on sexual harassment, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the least common action after suffering harassment is to tell supervisors or union representatives. Most victims fear no one will believe them or that they’ll suffer consequences. Those fears are well founded given that about three-quarters of people who report experience retaliation.
Instead, a common reaction is to do what Ellen eventually decided to do: quit. In a recent study, Heather McLaughlin, Amy Blackstone, and Christopher Uggen found that 80 percent of early-career women who experience unwanted touching or other kinds of harassment change jobs within two years. “We discovered that job change, industry change, and reduced work hours were common [as a response],” Blackstone said. In fact, victims are 6.5 times more likely to change jobs than those who aren’t harassed, even when accounting for other factors that prompt people to switch jobs, such as having a baby.
This often damages women's incomes and prospects. “A lot of wage growth…comes from changing jobs to negotiate up,” said Ariane Hegewisch, program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women's Policy Research. But if women end up having to leave just to escape a bad situation, “you kind of have to start back at a lower level of seniority, have to prove yourself again. It may be in a job for an employer that is less interesting or pays less well.” Victims often find themselves starting from scratch.
The study found that women who get harassed at work go through greater financial stress two years later—strain on par with being incarcerated or suffering a serious illness or injury. “Sexual harassment increases financial stress, which is largely precipitated by job change,” Blackstone said.
Harassment can alter someone’s whole path. "What was surprising was just how much harassment can derail a person's entire career,” Blackstone said. Her study included interviews with individual women. “Some women left higher paying jobs for positions with lower pay, often seeking out industries not dominated by men (which generally come with lower pay) or reducing their hours,” she said. “Some even quit their jobs without having another lined up.”
Overall, sexual harassment shapes women’s career paths the way water carves riverbeds into rock. “There are jobs women never go into because they fear harassment or know that there is harassment,” Hegewisch said. “And there are jobs where women advance less because of harassment or they may move away.” Even the less severe but common reaction of tuning out or avoiding work is almost certainly impacting how and whether women are able to get ahead. “It’s not for nothing that sexual harassment is part of employment discrimination legislation,” she said. “You have the right to prosper at work to the best of your abilities, and basically harassment stops you from doing that.”
As one study bluntly puts it, “Sexual harassment has been identified as one of the most damaging and ubiquitous barriers to career success and satisfaction for women.”
After quitting the human rights organization, Ellen was able to freelance for a number of years. She has mixed feelings about leaving her original field, and she forewent a steady income for three years.
But she recently had a stroke of good fortune: she got a good paying, full-time, salaried position. The experience of harassment and abuse at her previous job nearly derailed the new one, however. A few months in, she started experiencing weekly migraines. She began having “total meltdowns for no reason,” she said, including bursting into sobs at dinner with friends “out of nowhere.” And she began having nightmares that her new boss was harassing her.
She was gripped by the specter of being harassed again. “There’s nothing inappropriate going on at work,” she said. “It’s memories.”
But those memories of abuse past took their toll. She very nearly quit. “I was thinking…I'm just not physically capable of having a job with a boss because I’m so terrified of the whole thing,” she said. “I didn’t realize how unsafe I felt having a boss.”
Harassment takes a deep, lasting mental and emotional toll on many victims. It doesn’t just typically have a negative impact on a victim’s psychological attachment to the workplace where it occurs; it’s also been found to be associated with ongoing anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and lowered self-esteem and confidence. “[S]exual harassment is a stressor that can lead to work withdrawal, career instability, job dissatisfaction, and poor mental and physical health,” as a group of academic researchers put it in 2011.
Ellen eventually found a way to stick with it by going to therapy, calling on a support network of friends, and telling herself that she didn’t need to be so fearful. “I started reminding myself this is not the same person, this is not the same situation… I'm no longer in the position of vulnerability that I was in that allowed that boss to take advantage,” she said. “Every time there would be something that…made me feel like something horrible was going to happen, I was able to repeat that to myself until I could calm down.”
Her abuser seems to have suffered virtually no consequences for his behavior. She said he still works at the same place in basically the same role. This, too, is still disturbingly common: most employers respond to a report of sexual harassment by downplaying or trivializing it, even taking out reprisals on the victim herself, rather than doing anything to the perpetrator.
The only change after she finally reported his behavior during her exit interview on her last day, she said, was that the organization tried to make sure no women reported to him—levying the penalty on female employees, not her boss. “What a great solution,” she scoffed.