• Opinion
  • September 13, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 1

Failure to end harassment brings a vast — but secret — financial drain

Opinion: Building safe workplaces needs deep-rooted change

This article was written by Sarah Degnan Kambou, President of the International Center for Research on Women. It also appears in our gender equality newsfeed.


It’s blissfully summer. But work on my vegetable patch has been jarringly disrupted by the publication of yet another report on sex-based harassment — this time news from the World Bank. As I yank weeds, I imagine that I am yanking out those misogynistic norms that choke off gender equality at work. Any gardener will tell you that if you don’t pull a weed out by the roots it just comes back stronger. And if I don’t invest this time now, it will cost me even more to reclaim my garden later.

Likewise, we are at a crucial point to take stock of what harassment is costing all of us, both personally and institutionally.

The #MeToo movement that was launched into the spotlight in Hollywood echoed quickly through the boardrooms of major corporations, among the rank and file in the service industry and among nonprofits — no sector is immune.

In Washington, congressional staff came forward to report their experiences with sex-based harassment on Capitol Hill. And then the latest report came this summer via the Spanish newspaper El Pais: according to an internal survey seen by the paper, one in four women at the World Bank reported experiencing some form of sex-based harassment.

“Sex-based harassment” encompasses a wider range of behaviors than sexual harassment, which is predicated on unwanted sexual attention. Sex-based harassment also includes behavior that demeans one gender or gender characteristics, as well as sexual assault and sexual coercion.

Of those who experienced harassment at the World Bank, only 12% reported it.

Technically, institutions like the U.S. Congress or the World Bank have processes to address sex-based harassment, but victims have made clear that they don’t trust that these processes are set up to help them.

According to the World Bank survey, people who had been harassed but didn’t report it were afraid of the consequences, didn’t think anything would change and generally didn’t trust the system. Many of those who did report were frustrated with the outcome, making it even less likely that other victims would come forward, allowing the behaviour to continue.

This is particularly frustrating and disheartening from the World Bank, an institution which promotes gender equality as essential to global development. In a statement to the paper, the bank said that it “has long taken the issue of sexual harassment seriously” and has a “robust system in place” to address concerns. But it acknowledged that “we can always improve.”

At the International Center for Research on Women, we see these experiences reflected in our own analysis and new evidence on the economic costs of sexual harassment to businesses: sex-based harassment is a drain on organizations’ resources. Not simply in the legal or insurance costs, which are comparatively small, but in the drain on productivity.

“To prevent the growth of sex-based harassment, we have to pull it out by the roots, not just leaf by leaf.”

We also see that current approaches to addressing harassment are inadequate. If we are to prevent the growth and proliferation of sex-based harassment, which can spread like weeds in my vegetable garden, we have to pull it out by the roots, not just leaf by leaf.

As we document, industries calculate the costs of mitigating sex-based harassment by staff turnover and transfer costs, litigation and insurance premiums. While substantial, these represent only a fraction of the true costs, which are derived from lost productivity, including the time a perpetrator takes to harass a colleague, the resulting victim’s anxiety and absenteeism, the breakdown in team cohesion and performance. But further costs come losses to reputation — an organization’s ability to attract top talent and maintain women as staff or consumers. These costs are substantial yet do not feature routinely in business analytics.

It is going to take more than overhauling personnel policies, setting up whistle-blower hotlines and in-house training programs to tackle insidious expressions of gender inequality in the workplace. It will require a fundamental shift in how leaders compute the cost of inequality. Ethically and morally, ending all forms of sex-based harassment in the workplace is absolutely the right thing to do. It is equally compelling that addressing inequality is also smart economics.

Sadly, progress comes in fits and starts. A long-winding political process on Capitol Hill has whittled away the feminist brio of Congresswoman Jackie Speier’s original legislation and threatens to blunt what once promised to be a powerful, albeit overdue, response. About half of our state legislatures have revised their policies — but like Congress, the initial momentum has dwindled. As time and attention devoted to the issue pass, we are at risk of reverting to a toxic status quo.

The encouraging news is that sex-based harassment isn’t inevitable or insurmountable. The very first step is to pull misogyny out by its roots. Workplace cultures that respect the dignity and contributions of all employees, regardless of gender, sexuality, race or position, are most successful in making this transformation. Leaders, including political leaders, must not only re-examine the institutional response to sex-based harassment, they must overhaul hiring and promotions practices to create more diverse leadership. At the end of the story, it is diversity that creates the desired change.

We now look to Congress, the World Bank and other institutions to see how they will transform their workplace cultures. Will they weed out misogyny properly? Their actions, or lack of action, will be a bell weather. The world is watching. — Sarah Degnan Kambou,

(Picture credit: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

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