Equality in the Workplace: The Stubborn Lack of Progress in Reducing Harassment and Discrimination

By  - 
Julia Méndez
Julia Méndez

Although laws protecting women against discrimination and harassment in the workplace have been around for decades, there still is much work to be done to ensure the fair and respectful treatment of female employees.

I have been consulting and training organizations on equal opportunity laws and diversity and inclusion principles for 20-plus years, and I truly believed that by now, U.S. companies and employees would have noticed a marked level of progress in these areas. However, despite efforts to combat and reduce sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, we have not seen the forward movement one would expect.

So, in the first of two articles about the treatment of women in the workplace, I examine recent sexual harassment and discrimination settlements, research, and possible steps that employers can take to hasten progress in this area.

Sexual and Sex-Based Harassment

In recent years, there has been an increase in sex-based harassment and sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). According to EEOC data, in fiscal year (FY) 2014, 12,146 such cases were filed; in FY 2015, that number was 12,573, and in FY 2016, it was 12,860. These charges do include those filed by men; however, the overwhelming majority were from women.

Although the exact figures for FY 2017 have not been updated on the EEOC’s website, the agency has made public many individual charges and settlements that occurred in FY 2017, which leads me to believe that things have not improved much. In fact, with regard to sexual harassment, one only needs to turn on the news to hear about incidents at companies such as Uber, where several senior managers were accused of and later terminated for alleged harassment against female employees, or other situations that helped spark the #MeToo movement.

The following are recent sexual harassment cases settled by the EEOC:

● Ford Motor Company: $10.1 million settlement for alleged sexual and racial harassment against female and African American employees, as well as retaliation after they complained of the discriminatory behavior

● Northwest Territorial Mint, LLC: $725,000 settlement for systemic harassment by the company’s owner

● GEO Group: $550,000 settlement for sexual harassment and retaliation due to years of harassment that included sexual assault of female employees by male employees

Sex Discrimination

Not only have women had to face inappropriate jokes, demeaning comments, and unsolicited physical contact in the workplace, but they have also experienced discrimination in hiring practices and other employment activities. As the adjacent chart demonstrates, lawsuits involving sex discrimination against women filed by the EEOC have increased fairly steadily in recent years.

Although data regarding the number of sex discrimination charges filed by women in FY 2017 are not yet available, according to the EEOC’s FY 2017 Performance and Accountability Report, the agency filed 184 lawsuits last year. These included 124 on behalf of individuals, 30 non-systemic suits with multiple victims, and 30 systemic suits involving numerous victims or discriminatory policies. Many of these include cases of sex discrimination.

Unfortunately, high-profile sexual harassment cases have had an effect on women in the workplace in unexpected ways. Some men — many of whom have good intentions when it comes to the treatment of women — are consciously or subconsciously refraining from mentoring or inviting female employees to after-work functions or lunch to discuss company projects or engage in harmless bonding for fear that they could be perceived as acting inappropriately or as harassing these women. This lack of interaction could translate to lost opportunities for women to obtain the skills, experience, or trust from co-workers that are necessary to advance within an organization.

The following are some important sex discrimination cases that have recently been settled:

● B&H Foto settled a case brought forth by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which alleged that the organization discriminated against female as well as African American and Asian job seekers for entry-level positions. Under the consent decree, the retailer agreed to pay $3.2 million in back wages and other monetary relief to the more than 1,300 affected class members.

● Two coal-mining companies, Mach Mining and Foresight, discriminated against female applicants for mining and mining-related jobs. The firms were ordered to pay a combined total of $4.3 million in damages to approximately 70 women.

● Nestlé Waters North America, the world’s largest bottled water company, paid $300,000 to resolve a sex discrimination lawsuit involving its failure to promote a female employee who had worked for the organization for 20 years to business manager based on her gender. Instead, a non-qualified male employee was selected for the newly created position.

Addressing These Issues

Despite the lack of progress and the increase in claims, there are actions that organizations can take that have been proven to combat harassment and discrimination in the workplace. One such example is a thorough training program for all employees that’s required on an annual basis and covers topics such as sexual harassment, respect, and equal employment opportunity laws, as well as consequences for acting inappropriately. Make sure that sexual harassment and discrimination policies are in place that define improper behavior and that include specific examples of harassment and discrimination.

Additionally, having a toll-free hotline that allows employees to confidentially submit complaints regarding inappropriate behavior in the workplace has been shown to have a positive effect.

Conclusion

Many have hoped that sexual and sex-based harassment as well as sex discrimination would eventually become a thing of the past. However, we are seeing an increase in recent years of both high-profile cases involving inappropriate treatment and unfair employment practices affecting women, in addition to the number of formal charges filed with the EEOC. These high-profile cases have served as a wakeup call for many organizations, demonstrating that now is the time to step up and ensure that practices and policies are in place to decrease the likelihood of these types of behaviors occurring.

Through regular training, strong policies, and clear follow-through on concerns raised by employees, it is possible to create a workplace in which women are respected and free from the degrading harassment and discriminatory treatment that has remained a stubborn problem in too many organizations.

Julia Méndez, SHRM-CP, PHR, CDP, CELS, CAAP, is principal business consultant in the Workforce Compliance and Diversity Solutions Division for PeopleFluent Research Institute. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. This article ran in our March 2018 issue.