The Results of a 1976 Survey of Women About Sexual Harassment At Work Remain Virtually Unchanged In 2017. 27/32017
Published by REDBOOKMAG
A new survey shows that 80% of women have experienced sexual harassment at work — which is only a marginal improvement since 1976, when 90% of women reported receiving unwanted attentions at work.
The term "sexual harassment" was coined by group of female activists at Cornell University; in 1976 Redbook published "Sex on the Job," a tear-out questionnaire that readers could answer and mail in. The response was staggering: Over 9,000 women replied, the majority of them married, in their 20s to early 30s, working at white-collar (sales, clerical, secretarial) jobs, and earning $5,000-$10,000 a year (which would be approximately $21,000- $43,000 today). The survey was a landmark moment in the study of sexual harassment; it's since been cited in hundreds of academic articles.
In 2016, Redbookmag.com asked readers to take the same survey published in the magazine's January 1976 issue (only adjusting a question about average salaries to better reflect today's wages), and 500 online readers responded — the majority of whom are married, in their 20s to early 30s, with office (managerial, administrative, business) jobs, earning $30,000 to $50,000 a year. (While the sample sizes and the methods of response are different, both surveys were conducted specifically among Redbook readers.)
In 1976, 92% of women said sexual harassment was a problem, a majority of them describing it as a serious one; today, that number is up to 99%. The most common behaviors, then and now? Sexual remarks or teasing, with 64% of today's survey respondents reporting experiencing those behaviors from male coworkers, followed by leering and ogling (51%), subtle sexual hints or pressures (43%), and actual touching, brushing against, grabbing, or pinching (34%). Many women, like Victoria, 29, have experienced several of those behaviors at once. "I work on a TV set, and I'm often dressed in functional clothing — jeans, sneakers, a sweater. But one day, I was wearing a top that wasn't long enough to cover my butt in the back," she says. "A male crew member — whom I work with every day — came up to me, grabbed my arm, leaned into my ear and said, 'You're lookin' good in those jeans. You really know how to wear 'em.' I didn't know how to respond, so I just walked away."
Less than 4% of women today call those unwelcome attentions at work flattering, down from 15% in 1976. And the majority of respondents to both surveys called unwelcome attention on the job offensive, demeaning, and intimidating.
In theory, we've long passed the Mad Men-era days of men in wool suits leering at their secretaries, but 1 in 5 women still say their appearance was as important as their other qualifications when it came to being hired (and 31% of women today still believe a man's appearance is less important than a woman's at work); 1 in 3 said the same back in 1976. Liz, 42, felt that double standard herself while working at a major magazine. "A man I worked with invited me to get lunch and then suggested we go back to his apartment and have sex. I was incredibly uncomfortable, so I quickly and awkwardly fled the restaurant," she says. "That set the tone almost immediately for my time at this publication, which was dominated by older men. I would be seen not as a colleague and contributor, but as a sexual object who would occasionally write a short article."
The numbers are depressing but not altogether surprising, at least not if you've been paying attention to the news over the past 40 years. In the last year alone, a slew of high-profile sexual harassment stories dominated the headlines. Fox News' Gretchen Carlson reached a $20 million settlement with the network in September 2016 after accusing former head Roger Ailes of sexual harassment; another Fox employee, Juliet Huddy, reached a settlement of an undisclosed amount in January after accusing Bill O'Reilly of sexual harassment. (Both Ailes and O'Reilly have said the allegations were false.) And in October 2016, an audio tape of Donald Trump talking about "grabbing [women] by the p*ssy" on set while filming an Access Hollywood segment in 2005 leaked.
Just last month, documents submitted by plaintiffs' lawyers in a class-action suit filed against Sterling Jewelers (which also operates Kay Jewelers, Jared, and Zales) came to light, alleging an atmosphere of routine groping, inappropriate comments, and sexual favors solicited for career advancement. (A Sterling representation told the Washington Post that the company has "thoroughly investigated the allegations and have concluded they are not substantiated by the facts and certainly do not reflect our culture." The case is expected to go on trial early next year.) Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler went viral In February after publishing a blog post detailing the sexual harassment she experienced at Uber. (Her post led to the company's CEO Travis Kalanick calling for an "urgent investigation" into his own company.) Last week, New York magazine ran an article detailing sexual harassment allegations against Miki Agrawal, the CEO of THINX period underwear. (Agrawal responded with a post on Medium stating that the claims were baseless, and a Thinx spokesperson told New York magazine that the company commissioned an investigation that concluded the allegations had no legal merit.)
Redbook's 1976 survey was so groundbreaking because it marked the first time thousands of women responded candidly to questions about the sexual harassment they faced at work. Though awareness of the problem has increased in four decades, workplaces have made little headway in figuring out how to properly address the issue. And the majority of women today are still handling sexual harassment at work the same way they did in the 1970s: by sucking it up and dealing with it. That's how Elizabeth, 31, managed unwelcome attention from a male director at her law office.
"He sent me IMs commenting on my appearance, telling me I looked nice (but in a creepy way) and that he would look forward to what I would wear the next day," she says. "I saved copies of the conversations in case things didn't improve over time. But I mostly deflected and brushed him off — I was new to the organization, so I didn't have to pretend about how busy I was and it was easy for me to ignore him!"
In 1976, only 25% of women expected that the man would be asked to stop — or else — if they reported sexual harassment. Today, 39% of women say they believe that if they were to report sexual harassment, the man would be asked to stop. That's an improvement, but only 10 percent of today's survey respondents said they've actually reported sexual harassment to a supervisor. Joanna, 34, once filed a complaint against a male coworker at the restaurant where she waitressed after he grabbed a spoon, made a motion towards her genitalia, then pretended to lick the spoon and said "Mmm, tastes delicious." "I was outraged and disgusted, as coworkers looked on laughing," she says. "When I went to management, the manager on duty — a 30-something male —and told him what happened, he just laughed at me, saying that was a funny joke my coworker told." She ended up quitting soon after.
The most popular method for dealing with the abuse, in 1976 and 2016, was to "ignore it, hoping it will stop." Only 14% of today's respondents actually asked a man to stop. Jo, 36, put up with ongoing sexual harassment from her boss at a financial services company until one day, enough was enough. "He would pat us on the ass, call us sweetheart, ask us inappropriate questions about the men we dated, he even tried to pull me onto his lap once," she says. "I never reported it because I needed the job and I was afraid of being called a liar by HR. But, one time, I told him to fuck off and he was so shocked he literally never looked me in the eye again. I felt like I did the right thing by standing up for myself."
Sexual harassment is also interfering with retention and career advancement for female employees — then and now, nearly half of Redbook's survey respondents said that they (or a woman they know) have been fired or quit a job because of the problem. Natalie, 30, left her first job in the fashion industry after long-term sexual harassment culminated in an episode where her boss invited her home with him for a celebratory glass of wine and a dip in his pool. "If I reported him, I would have been fired and blacklisted — he had a huge network of contacts," she says. "I eventually quit because I realized I wasn't there for my talent, but rather for his pleasure."
Quitting would be now-President Trump's advice regarding sexual harassment at work, as well. When faced with the idea of his daughter Ivanka encountering such behavior, he said, "I would like to think she would find another career or find another company if that was the case." Never mind that many, if not most, women don't have the luxury of switching jobs every time a male colleague comments on her cleavage — and, clearly, sexual harassment is still a pervasive enough issue that women can't assume the next environment will be any less hostile. What they can do is keep speaking up, hopefully using their experiences to help bring about real change before another 40 years go by.