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NextGen Magazine


Study: Lifetime Cost of Sexual Harassment and Retaliation Can Reach $1.3 Million

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jul 21, 2021
iStock-866106596 Me Too Sexual Harassment

A recent study from the group Time's Up, partnering with the Institute for Women's Policy Research, estimates that the lifetime costs of sexual harassment, including the retaliation a worker can experience from refusing an advance, can reach up to $1.3 million for higher paid individuals, or $125,600 for those in low-wage jobs. 

Researchers determined these amounts based on in-depth interviews with 15 women and one man who all reported experiencing sexual harassment. They were asked to describe the circumstances of their harassment, as well as a detailed list of the financial consequences, including reduced earnings, impact on promotions, time out of work, lost benefits, and difference in earnings and benefits in subsequent employment. They also included related expenses for legal fees, medical and therapy fees, adverse effects on personal finances and loans, housing insecurity, and retraining and education. The researchers additionally counted factors such as lost benefits, lost 401(k) contributions and lost Social Security income. 

When interviewees described actual costs, usually pulled from records such as legal or medical bills, those were used in the study. When they could not recall exact numbers, the researchers followed standards and procedures commonly used in court cases to establish claims for monetary relief, as outlined in Stephenson and Macpherson (2019) and Bendick (2011); these draw on national or regional employment and earnings data for a detailed occupation. Regardless, costs were discounted back to present value for the date at which the harassment occurred based on the 90-day Treasury bill rate for each year (estimated for future years). 

The report goes into detail about what sexual harassment cost the specific interviewees. For example, it tells the story of a woman the researchers call Denise, a 30-year-old construction apprentice who was on a high-wage trajectory at a well-paying union job. While she loved her work, she said that persistent verbal sexual harassment from a co-worker, plus being regularly berated by others, and having her worksite graffitied with explicit sexual threats to the women working there, led her to quit. She left to take a non-union bus driver job, at half the salary, with fewer benefits.

Denise was earning $48,339 a year, and due to make $64,459 a year as a journey-level worker after completing her five-year apprenticeship. The job had generous benefits, including health insurance and a pension. After seven months of unemployment, the bus driver job she eventually took paid $34,320, with no pension, and fewer benefits. 

The report said that if she remains a bus driver, her lost lifetime wages and benefits will total $1,306,170, a sum that includes $92,705 in lost pension benefits, $51,567 in lost Social Security benefits, and $617 in medical and psychiatric costs. This sum does not include the general toll of physical strain, depression, and psychological trauma. 

The researchers said stories like this one are part of the wage and wealth gap between women and men in our society. In Denise's case, at least, she was coming off a decent job. For women pushed out of lower-wage positions, the loss of earnings translated into higher financial charges, lower credit ratings, mounting student loan debt, repossession of cars, evictions from housing, including temporary homelessness, and reduced retirement security. 

The report said that these stories show that current measures to stop sexual harassment are not working, and a rethinking of how we approach this issue is needed. 

"For every individual interviewed, the costs were magnified because those best-positioned to help address the harmful behavior (supervisors, human resources staff, colleagues) failed to act—or even worse, retaliated against the individuals," said the executive summary. "High costs of legal representation, lack of information, and uncertainty over immigration status left the large majority of those who experienced workplace sexual harassment and retaliation without legal recourse."