Believe it or not, it’s been almost two years since the #MeToo movement brought the world’s attention to sexual harassment in the workplace. In the months since October 2017, countless people have come forward to tell their stories, alleged serial abusers have fallen from power, and public discourse has evolved. Meanwhile, states such as New York and California have enacted new harassment prevention laws, and organizations around the world have implemented new programs to protect their workers.
It certainly seems like a lot has changed. But let’s consider the facts for a moment—the empirical evidence, beyond general feelings and anecdotes.
Is it possible to quantify the impact of #MeToo, two years later? And if so, do the numbers show meaningful change?
Data collected by a team of researchers from the University of Colorado indicate a “yes” on both counts. Writing for The Harvard Business Review, Researchers Stefanie K. Johnson, Ksenia Keplinger, Jessica F. Kirk, and Liza Barnes recently shared the results of two surveys they conducted. The first survey interviewed 250 working women in the US in 2016, before #MeToo went viral. The other involved 263 US working women (including some from the previous round) and took place in September of last year. Each survey asked respondents “about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in their workplaces and how it impacts them at work.”
Here’s what the researchers found:
“In 2016, 25% of women reported being sexually coerced, and in 2018 that number had declined to 16%. Unwanted sexual attention declined from 66% of women to 25%. In contrast, we noticed an increase in reports of gender harassment, from 76% of women in 2016 to 92% in 2018.”
What’s behind the increase in reports of gender harassment? The team believes their data suggest that despite the decline in “blatant sexual harassment—experiences that drive many women out of their careers,” “workplaces may be seeing a ‘backlash effect,’ or an increase in hostility toward women.”
That said, there are numerous ways to interpret the trends here. Perhaps it isn’t the rate of gender harassment that has increased, but the rate that it gets reported. Keep in mind that most incidents of harassment have historically gone unreported. As one interviewee said:
“I think that it’s more and more common for people to say something when they see something, or feel uncomfortable… The bigger issue isn’t somebody saying something in the first place; it’s the response from an employer when they learn that one of their employees is sexually harassing another.”
Regardless of the reasons why, and whatever the future holds, it should be clear to every employer that attitudes around workforce harassment have changed and are continuing to change. Don’t wait until someone reports an incident to take action—because for every incident you learn about, there could be dozens more. Keep your employees protected and stay ahead of rapidly evolving regulations with a comprehensive workforce management system.