The #MeToo movement heightened awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment, but offensive remarks and unwanted touching persist in the workplace and victims still remain reluctant to report problems, fearing retaliation, a study released Wednesday found.
Roughly 40 percent of study respondents said they experience some form of sexual harassment at work at least once a week, according to the study for MaineCanDo that was conducted by Pan Atlantic Research of Portland.
While three times more women than men, or 57.6 percent, of respondents said they were harassed, 18.8 percent of men said they were victims. And younger employees, between 18 and 34 years old, experienced sexual harassment most commonly, at 57 percent.
About an equal number of men and women have witnessed sexual harassment against others at work, at 23.4 percent of women and 21.9 percent of men.
“With one in five men also reporting sexual harassment, it’s not just a women’s issue. It’s a person’s issue,” said Richard Bilodeau, a lecturer in entrepreneurship and sustainable business at the University of Southern Maine.
“This research indicates that sexual harassment is impacting people of all genders negatively in Maine, and at very prevalent rates,” said Bilodeau, who is using the information in his teaching. “There’s a real relationship between people who are happy in their work and people who are not.”
He said if employees feel threatened or unsafe, it is likely that will affect their work performance and possibly customers. Unhappy employees who leave also may have negative effects on the company’s bottom line. And there is the potential for lawsuits.
“So many times we see sexual harassment as a gender-specific issue,” said Jennifer Hutchins, president of the Maine Association of Nonprofits and a founding member of MaineCanDo. “And people are sensing a real or perceived threat of retaliation.”
While more employees, 63.8 percent, said they believe that reporting sexual harassment puts their job at risk, some 48.7 percent of employers agreed that they feel a person who reports sexual harassment is risking his or her career. More than half of employees believe reports of sexual harassment are generally ignored.
MaineCanDo is an informational website that went live in June 2018 to provide information for employers and employees on sexual harassment. More than 350 businesses, nonprofits, investors and board members have signed MaineCanDo’s pledge to improve how sexual harassment is handled in the workplace.
A total of 518 people working in Maine participated in the survey, 303 of them employees and 216 employers. More women than men, 76.2 percent, responded to the survey, which is on the MaineCanDo website.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature by a co-worker, supervisor or a company client or customer.
The law doesn’t prohibit teasing or offhand comments in isolated incidents, but harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in the victim being fired or demoted.
One of the most common reasons female survey respondents gave for reporting sexual harassment they experienced was to protect other people from having the same experience, said Jason Edes, director of research at Pan Atlantic.
“And one reason they didn’t report harassment is they aren’t immediately sure whether [the incident] counts as harassment, but with time they understand it does,” he said.
There is extreme reluctance by employees to mistakenly claim sexual harassment, he said.
“It’s a serious thing [reporting harassment’] for a survivor or a perpetrator,” said Betsy Peters, a founding member of MaineCanDo.
Peters said millennials are less tolerant of sexual harassment.
The study found that 57 percent of people between 18 and 34 years old said they had experienced sexual harassment, while 48 percent of those 35-54 years old did and 38 percent of those 55 and older did.
Peters said Maine’s rates of sexual harassment fall in line with a national study by the University of California at San Diego and Stop Street Harassment.
Released in April, the national study took a broader look at sexual harassment in the workplace, in public areas and in schools. Some 38 percent of women and 14 percent of men said they experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Both groups reported much higher sexual harassment in public spaces such as beaches, stores, theaters and other locations.
Also, Maine’s numbers were similar to figures from a University of New Hampshire study released in January, which found 52 percent of women and 22 percent of men had been sexually harassed the workplace during their lifetime.
“These [MaineCanDo] survey answers are a wakeup call,” said Christen Graham, president of Giving Strong and a founding member of MaineCanDo. She said companies should have a written policy about sexual harassment and conduct training.
“This new knowledge can spur more Maine-based enterprises to rethink their workplace cultures,” she said.
If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.