These Stats Hint at the True Scope of Workplace Sexual Harassment

That we are finally talking about sexual harassment and sexual assault at the workplace is momentous. Researchers often warn, however, that anecdotes are not data in the strictest sense. Stories are subject to a number of contributing factors, such as who feels safe coming forward, that would skew any objective data set.

A new article in the journal Statistics Views asks what kind of reliable information we can extract from reports about workplace sexual bullying and violence. It differentiates between federal definitions of harassment, "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature," and abuse, which it classifies as more physically violent. Overall, women have a 3 in 5 chance of experiencing sexual harassment at work; for a man, it's less than 1 in 5.

However, that doesn't take into account reporting. About 8 in 10 victims of workplace sexual harassment never file a formal complaint, largely because of fears of retaliation. In some scenarios, reporting could be as little as 2 percent of actual incidents. Even getting people to spot sexual harassment varies depending on the framing; reports doubled to 50 percent when survey participants were asked about specific actions, like crude language or jokes.

Sexual harassment isn't about love or even sex — it's about exerting power over another person. "Statistics alone will probably never reveal just how much of a problem sexual harassment really is," writes article author Allison Goldstein. "This is because power dynamics, even if they shift, will never go away."

That said, while the data we have available is incomplete, it shows a large enough problem that it deserves more action and more conversation. Destigmatizing workplace sexual harassment can lead to more transparency, and thus more data, bringing us that much closer to data-driven solutions. (Until then, be kind and professional at the office. It makes life and work easier for everyone.)