While it’s long been clear that victims of sexual harassment often face retaliation that can damage their careers, the financial cost they shoulder has been difficult to quantify.
To put a number on it, a study published Wednesday by Time’s Up and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), “Paying Today and Tomorrow,” sought to nail down what people who had been harassed ended up paying. Victims interviewed faced expenses anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For one woman working in the well-paid, male-dominated construction industry, the lifetime cost could reach $1.3 million, according to the study. Even someone forced out of a low-wage job like those in the fast-food industry saw financial fallout totaling $125,600.
Workers who took part in the study came from a variety of industries—from technology to trucking to janitorial services. Almost everyone said they lost some work or were forced out of their jobs altogether.
Most lost responsibilities and pay as retaliation for speaking up—they were docked hours, given poor performance evaluations, or denied bonuses and promotions until they were pushed out or fired. Some remained unemployed for as long as five years.
Many changed careers, starting back at the bottom in jobs that paid much less than what they left behind, according to the study. For a few, it meant spending even more money on retraining or tuition. Meanwhile, all suffered from lost wages, lost health benefits and depleted retirement savings as debts piled up.
When the #MeToo movement began in earnest in 2018, “we had all these women sharing their stories,” said C. Nicole Mason, president of IWPR. But “we had very little research or data about what does this mean for women’s economic mobility, security, career mobility. We really couldn’t answer that question.”
Data can be hard to come by. Settlements typically come with non-disclosure agreements, and the government doesn’t require businesses to report whether women are leaving due to harassment.
“We took it as a personal charge to try to quantify this,” Mason said.
The case of Marlene is a prime illustration of what can happen. Asking to be identified by only her first name due to ongoing litigation, Marlene said colleagues at the agency where she worked warned she had been promoted for the wrong reasons. According to a lawsuit she filed in May, Marlene soon discovered what they meant.
Two months after starting her new job as executive assistant, she alleged that her supervisor started making comments about her appearance and personal life. Then he began leaving small gifts with hand-written cards in her office at night, she said.
But when Marlene told him she wasn’t interested, everything changed—he started sending a barrage of emails demanding more work. When she complained, Marlene found herself relieved of duties and privileges while her supervisor was promoted, according to court papers. She was also moved from the C-suite to a reception area—right next to the copier.
Marlene said she concluded she had no future at the agency, and quit. She obtained a right to sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and did so in state court. But she also moved to another state, where she was forced to take an entry-level job in a different field, one in which she had no experience, she said. Years later, Marlene said she has yet to make the kind of money she earned at her old job.
Marlene’s allegations are the sort many companies seek to avoid with robust training and warnings to would-be harassers. But even now, the IWPR said, at least one-quarter of women still experience sexual harassment at work. The financial consequences factor into the gender wage gap that leaves them earning 82 cents for every dollar a man makes. Many of the women Time’s Up and IWPR interviewed left high-paying jobs, some in male-dominated spaces, for lower-paid work.
Men can be harassed as well. Anthoné Gerenis, who in 2019 filed a complaint with the EEOC, said he started working at a real estate company in Gainesville, Florida, at age 19. Within two years, he worked his way up to company headquarters, and eventually landed in human resources.
Within a month of starting his new role, Gerenis alleged that a more senior colleague had made unwanted advances. I felt “pure terror,” Gerenis said in an interview, because he “had my entire life in his hands.” When Gerenis rebuffed him, he was stripped of responsibilities and subsequently fired, according to his EEOC filing.
Gerenis said he lost his health insurance, struggled to pay for his glaucoma medication and in time burned through his savings. “I went from having a $103,000 compensation package to applying for food stamps,” he said in an interview. “Everything I’ve lost—now you’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
While he’s tried to find other work, Gerenis said he feels as if he’s been blacklisted. Nine years of experience and two awards fail to earn him any callbacks. “This is my whole career, and I feel so left out,” he said. “You’re forever impacted and forever touched by just one bad actor’s action.”
IWPR and Time’s Up said studying cases like these is just the beginning, and that they plan to undertake a broader analysis.
“The conversations in 2018 were about lawsuits and accountability,” Mason said of the start of #MeToo. “This moment is really looking at what is the impact, how do we talk about what we’re losing economically.”
First published on: Al Jazeera