The number of people filing sex discrimination cases reached its highest point of the last decade last fiscal year, according to new data published by the Maine Human Rights Commission. But most sex discrimination, such as sexual harassment in the workplace, still goes unreported.
Year-to-year changes are modest, but the quasi-state agency saw a 35 percent increase in complaints of sex discrimination in fiscal year 2019 — which ran July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019 — compared with fiscal year 2016. Since fiscal year 2010, complaints have risen 18 percent.
It is against the law for employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of sex, such as by not hiring a woman because the boss believes she won’t fit into a male-dominated workplace or by allowing employees to make lewd sexual comments to a female co-worker.
But just because complaints are increasing doesn’t mean there is actually more sex discrimination.
“I do think more people are reporting discrimination based on sex perhaps because they are starting to see something actually happen when it is reported,” Maine Human Rights Commission Executive Director Amy Sneirson said. People are encouraged when they “see tangible proof in the news that sometimes harassment can be stopped and dealt with, and made right.”
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Sexual harassment, a common form of sex discrimination, remains underreported. About half of the Maine employees who participated in a survey conducted by Pan Atlantic Research earlier this year said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and 60 percent of them did not report it.
About half of the employees surveyed said they also believe reports of sexual harassment in the workplace are generally ignored.
That’s what a former dishwasher at a small restaurant in Somerset County said happened to her. Earlier this year, the woman, who asked to keep her identity private, grew disgusted by a male co-worker whom she said texted her a nude picture of himself and made inappropriate comments about how she should be with him instead of her husband.
“I was flabbergasted by it,” the woman said. But she was even more disturbed by her boss, who insinuated in writing that the woman needed to set better boundaries, according to text messages she shared with the Bangor Daily News.
The small workplace made it difficult to avoid her co-worker, she said, so she quit. On Sept. 20, she filed a complaint alleging sex discrimination with the Maine Human Rights Commission. It has not reached a resolution.
Typically, most cases before the commission resolve prior to a public hearing, such as when the parties reach a settlement. Last year, based on what the commission could track, complainants received $2.9 million in monetary relief.
Only a small percentage of cases that proceed to an investigation tend to turn out in complainants’ favor. Of the 280 cases with investigator’s reports last year, commissioners found reasonable grounds to believe unlawful discrimination of all types occurred in 47 cases, or about 17 percent.
Employees at small firms, such as the Somerset County restaurant, appear less likely to report potential harassment. About 88 percent of Maine establishments have fewer than 20 employees, and they employ 31 percent of all workers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
While 14 percent of employees at workplaces with fewer than 15 people said they had experienced sexual harassment in their current job, only 4.5 percent of smaller employers said they had ever received a complaint of sexual harassment, according to the Pan Atlantic Research survey.
By comparison, 41 percent of larger employers said they had received reports of sexual harassment.
“One of the best practices is to have at least two reporting routes within your workplace,” said Elizabeth Ward Saxl, executive director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Ideally you’ve got options of different genders to report to as well, as a best practice. But if you’re sitting in a four-person workplace, no way is that possible.”
Employers with 15 or more employees must conduct anti-sexual harassment training within a year of hire, discussing, for instance, not-clear-cut examples of inappropriate behavior and making sure employees know the internal complaint process. Supervisors are required to have additional training.
Maine workplaces with fewer than 15 employees are not required to conduct anti-sexual harassment training.
But they are still liable if they know or even “should have known” of the harassment, according to state regulations. An employer can defend itself legally by showing that it “exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior,” according to the regulations.
That’s one reason why many human resources professionals believe employers of all sizes should offer training.
“You can’t say, ‘Oh, harassment is never going to occur if you have a culture of excellence.’ I think that’s naive to think it won’t occur. The point is you have to have mechanisms in place to make employees feel comfortable and have their needs addressed,” said Deb Whitworth, a commissioner with the Maine Human Rights Commission.
There are practical considerations, however. “Who’s going to do the training, and how much does that cost?” said Peter Gore, a lobbyist for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
Until 2017, no one in Maine was making sure that employers conducted the training. That changed with LD 1477, a bill that gave the Maine Department of Labor the authority to inspect employers for documentation of their employees participating in the trainings, or else be fined $1,000 for their first violation. The department has found zero violations, spokeswoman Jessica Picard said.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.