Skip to main content

Auditing and Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Posted on October 22, 2020

Sexual harassment in the workplace is not uncommon. And as the nation’s largest employer, the federal government faces its own challenges when it comes to detecting and responding to workplace sexual harassment.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our recent reports and testimonies on workplace sexual harassment. You can also tune into our new podcast on workplace sexual harassment to learn more.

The magnitude and effects of workplace sexual harassment

Research shows that few workers who experience sexual harassment report it. Some studies estimate as few as 6% of such workers report the incident. While the most tangible effects of sexual harassment may be direct costs, such as legal fees and settlement amounts, there are also indirect costs and consequences, such as decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational harm to workers and employers.

Just how prevalent is workplace sexual harassment and what are its costs? It’s hard to say. According to our analysis, the few reliable nationwide estimates of sexual harassment’s prevalence vary substantially due to differences in methodology, including the survey’s question structure and time period used.

Moreover, the likeliness of experiencing workplace sexual harassment can vary based on an individual’s demographic characteristics—such as gender, race, and age—and whether the workplace is male- or female-dominated. For example, women, younger workers, and women in male-dominated workplaces were more likely to say they experienced harassment.

Similarly, we did not find any recent cost estimates of workplace sexual harassment, but identified four broad categories of costs: health, productivity, career, and reporting and legal costs. The figure below illustrates these costs.


Examples of health, productivity, career and reporting costs associated with workplace sexual harassment.


Our new report highlights the lack of comprehensive, nationally-representative data on sexual harassment’s prevalence and costs, and discusses options and considerations from experts for collecting such data in the future.

It also finds that U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—which is responsible for enforcing federal laws on workplace situations like harassment— collects data on sexual harassment claims, but can’t fully analyze the problem. We recommended that EEOC assess the feasibility of analyzing additional data on retaliation charges, which can occur after an individual files a sexual harassment charge.

Protecting federal employees from sexual harassment in the workplace

We have issued a number of reports about sexual harassment in the federal workplace. In July, we testified before Congress about sexual harassment at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although VA has policies to prevent and address harassment of employees, some are inconsistent and incomplete. For example, the person who oversees personnel functions, such as hiring and promotions, is the same person who oversees the complaint process. This could create a conflict of interest. Additionally, VA does not collect information on all complaints centrally, which makes it harder to direct resources for preventing and addressing sexual harassment where they are needed most. This also means VA does not have a sense of how prevalent sexual harassment is within the department. According to a federal survey, an estimated 22% of VA employees had experienced workplace sexual harassment from 2014 to 2016. We made several recommendations to VA on how it could better protect its employees.

Sexual harassment in STEM programs  

Research in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) plays a critical role in enhancing the nation’s competitiveness. Sexual harassment—which is not only illegal and degrading—also makes it more difficult for women to engage in STEM fields and undermines the quality and fairness of our nation’s research.


Doctor using syringe to fill test tube with demarcations in lab.

In recent years, prominent STEM researchers have engaged in or been accused of sexual harassment, according to a number of media reports. Title IX prohibits sexual harassment and other discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities, including STEM research.

In a March report, we looked at the 5 agencies that provide most of the federal STEM research grants and found that while the number of complaints agencies received were low, the guidance for how employees could report sexual harassment incidents was limited. For example:

  • Although 4 of the 5 agencies received 3 or fewer complaints of sexual harassment within the past 5 years, 2 of those agencies lacked or had outdated guidance for how employees could file complaints.
  • Additionally, none of the 5 agencies we reviewed had goals or an overall plan to evaluate efforts to prevent sexual harassment.

We also testified before Congress in June 2019 about how these 5 agencies ensure funding is not awarded to those who have a history of sexual harassment. At that time, we said that while all 5 agencies had taken some steps to prevent sexual harassment, they also noted challenges with these efforts, such as the lack of information on sexual harassment cases. This could increase the risk of funding researchers with a history of past sexual harassment.