GENDER & SOCIETY, Vol 31 No. 3, June, 2017 333 –358
© 2017 by The Author(s)
THE ECONOMIC AND CAREER EFFECTS
OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT ON WORKING
Oklahoma State University, USA
University of Minnesota, USA
University of Maine, USA
Many working women will experience sexual harassment at some point in their careers.
While some report this harassment, many leave their jobs to escape the harassing environ-
ment. This mixed-methods study examines whether sexual harassment and subsequent
career disruption affect women’s careers. Using in-depth interviews and longitudinal
survey data from the Youth Development Study, we examine the effect of sexual harassment
for women in the early career. We find that sexual harassment increases financial stress,
largely by precipitating job change, and can significantly alter women’s career attainment.
Keywords: sexual harassment; gender; work; young adulthood; attainment
Feminist scholars argue that sexual harassment causes considerable harm
to women as a group (MacKinnon 1979). Harassment undermines
women’s workplace authority, reduces them to sexual objects, and rein-
forces sexist stereotypes about appropriate gender behavior (McLaughlin,
AUTHORS’ NOTE: We thank Jeylan Mortimer for providing the data and support for
this research, Lesley Schneider for research assistance, and Sharon Bird and the editors
and anonymous reviewers at Gender & Society for their helpful comments on this paper.
The Youth Development Study was supported by grants from the National Institute of
Child Health and Human Development (HD44138) and the National Institute of Mental
Health (MH42843). The content of this paper is solely the responsibility of the author and
does not represent the official views of the National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development or the National Institutes of Health. Correspondence concerning this article
should be addressed to Heather McLaughlin, Department of Sociology, Oklahoma State
University, 431 Murray Hall, Stillwater, OK 74078; e-mail: heather.mclaughlin@okstate.
704631GASXXX10.1177/0891243217704631GENDER & SOCIETYMcLaughlin et al. / EFFECTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT
334 GENDER & SOCIETY/June 2017
Uggen, and Blackstone 2012; Quinn 2002). At the individual level, how-
ever, targets who pursue legal action must demonstrate that employers or
harassers caused measurable harm. Previous studies document the psycho-
logical harm of sexual harassment (Fitzgerald et al. 1997; Gruber and
Fineran 2008; Houle et al. 2011), yet little research documents the tangible
economic costs for working women. Because many targets quit their jobs
rather than continue working in a harassing work environment, sexual har-
assment may have long-term consequences for women’s careers. Throughout
their twenties, young adults experience frequent job change as they find
their footing on the “long and twisting path to adulthood” (Settersten and
Ray 2010, 19). As a result, measuring the direct and indirect effects of
sexual harassment for women’s careers is difficult. Quantitative studies,
though predominantly cross-sectional, establish significant associations
between harassment and several work outcomes, such as job satisfaction
and turnover. Careers are often messy, however, with workers holding mul-
tiple jobs simultaneously or experiencing rapid job turnover on a monthly
or weekly basis. While quantitative methods can help identify the effect of
harassment on women’s career trajectories, qualitative analyses are needed
to show precisely how and why sexual harassment affects women’s unfold-
ing career stories.
In this mixed-methods study, we examine the relationship between
sexual harassment and women’s career attainment. Although harassment
occurs in a variety of institutional contexts, including housing (Tester
2008) and educational settings (Hand and Sanchez 2000; Kalof et al.
2001), this article focuses exclusively on workplace sexual harassment.
Using survey data from the Youth Development Study (YDS), we exam-
ine whether sexual harassment is associated with immediate financial
stress and longer-term economic attainment through the mid- to late thir-
ties. Then, we analyze interviews conducted with a subset of YDS
respondents to identify how harassment influences women’s long-term
THE COSTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT
Sexual harassment can have deleterious consequences for mental and
physical health (McDonald 2012; Willness, Steel, and Lee 2007). Houle
and colleagues (2011), for example, point to the longevity of these effects,
as targets of harassment continue to report depressive symptoms nearly a
decade later. The same study links sexual harassment to other aspects of
McLaughlin et al. / EFFECTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT 335
mental health, including anger and self-doubt, which likely influence tar-
gets’ future employment experiences. Given these serious health effects,
it is not surprising that sexual harassment affects immediate work out-
comes, such as reduced job satisfaction (Chan et al. 2008; Fitzgerald et al.
1997; Laband and Lentz 1998), increased absenteeism and work with-
drawal (Merkin 2008; U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board 1988), and
deteriorating relationships with coworkers (Gruber and Bjorn 1982; Loy
and Stewart 1984). Organizational commitment may also wane if employ-
ers fail to adequately address harassers or protect targets (Willness, Steel,
and Lee 2007). In light of evidence that sexual harassment is often an
ongoing occurrence (Uggen and Blackstone 2004), occurring alongside
other forms of workplace abuse (Lim and Cortina 2005), targets may hold
employers responsible for enabling a toxic organizational culture. When
employers fail to take action, or when targets are labeled “troublemakers”
who harm productivity or the organization’s reputation, loyalty and trust
may also be jeopardized.
Beyond these work outcomes, sexual harassment costs the federal gov-
ernment millions. Costs between 1985 and 1987 were estimated at $267
million before litigation and settlement fees (U.S. Merit Systems Protection
Board 1988), more than $200 million of which was due to reduced pro-
ductivity. In 2015, sexual harassment charges filed with the U.S. Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission (2015) cost organizations and
harassers $46 million, excluding monetary damages awarded through liti-
gation. Such estimates dramatically understate the total costs to employ-
ers, as most harassment goes unreported. Despite these attempts to
monetize the organizational costs of harassment, few researchers have
attempted to estimate the economic and career costs for individual targets.
GENDER, EARLY CAREER INTERRUPTIONS, AND LONG-
The gender gap in earnings has remained unchanged for over a decade,
with women’s 2012 median earnings equaling roughly 81 percent that of
men’s (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2013). Occupational segregation, the
concentration of men and women into different types of jobs, is a strong
contributor to this earnings inequality (Gauchat, Kelly, and Wallace 2012;
Ranson and Reeves 1996). Despite gains in educational attainment, women
remain overrepresented in “pink-collar” occupations (e.g., retail, food ser-
vices, and care work) that are typically characterized by low prestige and
336 GENDER & SOCIETY/June 2017
menial pay. Some women prefer such work. Others are pushed out of mas-
culine fields by discriminatory policies and practices that disadvantage
women (Ecklund, Lincoln, and Tansey 2012; Prokos and Padavic 2005).
Indeed, Rosenberg, Perlstadt, and Phillips’s (1993) study of women law-
yers describes discrimination and harassment as tactics that subvert wom-
en’s professional standing. Cha and Weeden (2014) similarly point to
gendered patterns of “overwork,” particularly in professional and manage-
rial occupations, to explain the gender wage gap. Such gendered norms and
practices are embedded within institutions, reifying existing status hierar-
chies (Acker 1990; Lopez, Hodson, and Roscigno 2009; Roscigno 2011).
Sexual harassment is well documented across many fields but women
who work in men-dominated occupations and industries experience higher
rates (Fitzgerald et al. 1997; Gruber 1998; McLaughlin, Uggen, and
Blackstone 2012). The likelihood of harassment also increases with expo-
sure to a wider range of employees (Chamberlain et al. 2008; De Coster,
Estes, and Mueller 1999), and is higher among single women (De Coster,
Estes, and Mueller 1999; Rosenberg, Perlstadt, and Phillips 1993), highly
educated women (De Coster, Estes, and Mueller 1999), and women in
positions of authority (Chamberlain et al. 2008; McLaughlin, Uggen, and
Blackstone 2012). Because sexual harassment forces some women out of
jobs, it likely influences their career attainment (Blackstone, Uggen, and
McLaughlin 2009; Lopez, Hodson, and Roscigno 2009). Numerous studies
link voluntary and involuntary career interruptions to significant earnings
losses (Brand 2015; Couch and Placzek 2010; Theunissen et al. 2011).
Hijzen, Upward, and Wright (2010) estimate income losses in the United
Kingdom ranging from 18 to 35 percent following job displacement asso-
ciated with firm closure, and losses of 14–25 percent among those who
suffer mass layoff. Brand and Thomas (2014, 986) argue that “job displace-
ment is a precipitating life event that entails a sequence of stressful experi-
ences,” from unemployment, to job search, retraining, and reemployment,
“often in a job of inferior quality and lower earnings relative to the job
lost.” Previous research on gender, work, and job disruption has yet to
consider sexual harassment, which may be a major scarring event that dis-
rupts “the usual trajectory of steady jobs with career ladders that normally
propels wage growth” (Western 2006, 109).
By severing ties with employers, workers also relinquish firm-specific
human capital, which is closely linked to earnings (Kletzer 1998).
Further, harassment targets may have trouble obtaining references from
managers and coworkers. Those who find a new job may discover lack
of seniority limits earnings growth and increases vulnerability to layoffs
McLaughlin et al. / EFFECTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT 337
and career instability. Career interruption may be especially costly in the
early career. Most young adults settle into work and family roles in their
thirties (Arnett 2004). While sexual banter, crude jokes, and flirting are
commonplace in adolescent jobs, they become more disruptive as work-
ers gain experience (Blackstone, Houle, and Uggen 2014). By their early
thirties, many who once viewed sexualized workplace interactions as
acceptable or even pleasurable expect to be treated professionally, and
are more likely to view harassment as a serious workplace problem
(Blackstone, Houle, and Uggen 2014). If sexual harassment forces
women to leave their jobs, it may derail their long-term career opportuni-
ties. We thus hypothesize that sexual harassment increases subjective
financial stress (Ullah 1990) and has consequences for women’s career
trajectories. We expect that job disruption accounts for a significant por-
tion of these effects.
We analyze survey and interview data from the Youth Development
Study (YDS), a prospective, longitudinal cohort study that began in 1988,
when participants were ninth-graders in the St. Paul, Minnesota, public
school system. A total of 1,139 parents and children consented to take part
in the study, and 1,105 responded to in-school surveys during the first
year. The initial panel was representative of the total population of St.
Paul ninth-graders who attended public schools (Mortimer 2003).
Participants were surveyed in schools for the first four years (1988–1992),
and by mail 15 more times through 2011.
Because women are more likely than men to be targeted (Uggen and
Blackstone 2004; Welsh 1999), to perceive sexualized behaviors as offen-
sive (Padavic and Orcutt 1997; Quinn 2002), and to label their experi-
ences as sexual harassment (Marshall 2005; McLaughlin, Uggen, and
Blackstone 2012), we limit our analyses to employed women who were
potential harassment targets in 2003 (n = 364). The response rate for
women in the YDS panel was 74 percent in 2005, when we measure the
effects of harassment on financial stress. We find no evidence of differen-
tial attrition between women who experienced sexual harassment and
those who did not. The detailed information on sexual harassment and
comprehensive longitudinal data on women’s careers allows for unique
analyses that would not be possible using other data sets; however, the
sample is relatively small, and data is collected from a single cohort
338 GENDER & SOCIETY/June 2017
originating from a single U.S. community. Thus, we urge caution in gen-
eralizing to other cohorts of women in other contexts.
To understand the context of harassment in their careers, we inter-
viewed 33 YDS respondents (14 men, 19 women) who reported harassing
behavior “at any job held during high school” or “since high school” on
their 1999 survey, the first year harassment questions were included in the
YDS. Our analysis here includes data from the 19 interviews with women.
We mailed letters to 86 women who reported harassment in their surveys,
inviting them for a face-to-face interview about “experiences with prob-
lems in the workplace, including sexual harassment,” noting they would
be “asked questions about how people may have made you feel uncom-
fortable at work by joking about you, staring at you, touching you, or
anything else that may have made you uncomfortable.”
Of those invited, 30 women expressed interest by sharing their tele-
phone number via return postcard. We called all 30 for interviews. Some
did not respond, others declined to participate, some provided nonwork-
ing numbers, and others did not show up for interviews. There were no
other significant differences between interview participants and those who
were invited but did not participate, except that interviewees were some-
what more likely to be exposed to offensive materials at work.
We asked participants questions about their careers, including relation-
ships with coworkers, explanations for career transitions, and harassing
experiences. They were paid $40 to do a 60- to 90-minute interview at a
location of their choosing (usually their home). Given the sensitive nature
of our questions, we shared a list of local and national sexual violence
resources during the informed consent process at the outset of each inter-
view. We also reminded participants that they could skip any question
they preferred not to answer or end the interview at any time. Interviews
were conducted in 2002–2003, when participants were 28–30 years old.
All 19 women interviewed identified as straight, and all but two identified
Our dependent variable is financial stress, which measures stress in
“meeting your financial obligations” in the past year. This outcome was
self-reported in 2005, with response options ranging from 1 (“not at all
stressful”) to 7 (“extremely stressful”). In 2003, YDS respondents reported
whether they had experienced workplace sexual harassment during the
past year. Modeled after the Inventory of Sexual Harassment (Gruber
McLaughlin et al. / EFFECTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT 339
1992) and Sexual Experiences Questionnaire (Fitzgerald et al. 1988),
items included (1) unwanted touching; (2) offensive jokes, remarks, or
gossip directed at you; (3) offensive jokes, remarks, or gossip about oth-
ers; (4) direct questioning about your private life; (5) staring or invasion
of your personal space; (6) staring or leering at you in a way that made
you uncomfortable; and (7) pictures, posters, or other materials that you
Although experiencing any of these behaviors could have serious
effects, we operationalize severe sexual harassment as unwanted touching
and/or experiencing four or more different harassing behaviors in the past
year. With this definition, we can be reasonably confident that behaviors
meet legal definitions of hostile work environment sexual harassment and
that financial stress can be tied to specific work experiences. Using these
criteria, 11 percent of working women were harassed in 2003.
Exiting a harassing work environment may be costly for women’s long-
term careers if they sacrifice firm-specific tenure and human capital, lose
access to social networks, experience gaps in employment, or cannot find
comparable work. Job change is coded as “1” if respondents reported a
new job in 2004 or 2005. We lag this measure to ensure that sexual harass-
ment occurs prior to starting a new job. As shown in Table 1, 56 percent
of women began a new job in the two years after reporting on harassment.
We control for six additional job characteristics linked to earnings and
harassment. Supervisory authority is a dichotomous measure of whether
participants supervise others (27 percent). Work hours reflects the hours
worked in the past week for respondents’ primary job (mean = 37).
Logged number of employees is reported for the primary job’s worksite
(mean = 4.3 or 73 employees). We derived the percentage of women in
respondents’ primary job industry from U.S. Census estimates (U.S.
Department of Labor 2003). On average, women worked in gender-bal-
anced industries (57 percent women), though industry composition ranged
from 9 to 96 percent women. Twelve percent of women were temporary
workers, whose positions were contracted through a temporary agency,
seasonal, or limited by term or contract. Because workers whose jobs do
not align with their long-term career goals may quit for reasons unrelated
to the harassment, our models adjust for whether women expected their
primary job to continue as a long-term career (48 percent).
We also consider individual and family characteristics affecting finan-
cial stress and earnings. Race is an important control in this analysis, as it
is associated with both sexual harassment (Texeira 2002; Welsh et al.
2006) and earnings inequality (Greenman and Xie 2008; Xu and Leffler
340 GENDER & SOCIETY/June 2017
1992). Race is measured dichotomously, as whites comprise 79 percent of
our analytic sample.2 Although variations in employment conditions and
harassment experiences among women of color are important empirical
TABLE 1: Descriptive Statistics of Women in the Youth Development Study
Financial stress (2005) Stress felt in meeting
in past year
Sexual harassment (2003) Unwanted touching or at
least 4 other behaviors in
Job change (2004–2005) Started new job in
Primary job characteristics (2003)
Supervisory authority Supervise others on job 0.274
Work hours Hours in past week 36.575 9.928
Logged employees Logged number of
Industry percent women Percentage of women in
Temporary job Job through temp agency,
seasonal, or limited-term
Long-term career job Job will probably continue
as long-term career
Individual characteristics (2003)
White Self-reported race 0.788
Years education Years completed 14.500 1.770
Married/cohabiting Relationship status 0.698
Mother At least one child 0.610
Birth, adopted, stepchild,
or other child born
Negative life event
Experienced (1) serious
injury/illness; (2) breakup
of serious romantic
relationship; (3) jail; (4)
assault, battery, robbery,
or rape; and/or (5) death
NOTE: Descriptive statistics reported for analytic sample (the 364 women who responded to
workplace sexual harassment questions in 2003). Because of missing data, sample attrition,
and women leaving the labor force, sample size varies across measures (min = 234, max = 364).
McLaughlin et al. / EFFECTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT 341
questions, our data do not permit these analyses. Years of education
ranges from 10 to 20 (mean = 14.5 years). We also adjust for whether
women are married or cohabiting (yes coded as 1) and whether they are
mothers (yes coded as 1) in 2003, at age 29–30. In 2003, 70 percent of the
working women were married or cohabiting and 61 percent had children.
The recent birth of a child can lead to job exit, financial stress, and
reduced attainment (Even 1987). Thus, we control for having a new child
(including birth, adopted, stepchildren, and other children) born 2003–
2005, in addition to having a child prior to 2003. Experiencing incarcera-
tion, divorce, and other negative life events3 may also increase financial
stress. Twenty-six percent of women had a child born 2003–2005 and 45
percent of women reported at least one negative life event during this
Method of Analysis
We first use OLS regression to model financial stress. We include four-
step formal mediation analyses (Baron and Kenny 1986) to test whether
job change mediates the relationship between sexual harassment and
financial stress. This process (1) establishes that harassment affects job
change (path a); (2) establishes a direct effect of harassment on economic
attainment (path c); (3) verifies that job change influences economic
attainment, net of harassment (path b); and finally, (4) calculates the
reduction of the effect of harassment on the attainment outcome, net of job
change (path ć).
We next present qualitative findings from our interviews with 19 women
participants. We used NVivo software to organize, manage, interpret, and
analyze the interview transcripts, which ranged from 20 to 60 pages. Our
qualitative analysis proceeded in several stages. We first identified passages
that helped contextualize our quantitative findings. We then reexamined
each transcript to code for tangible and intangible outcomes associated with
harassing experiences. In addition, we coded all passages referring to earn-
ings, economic concerns, and finances more generally (e.g., bills and expen-
ditures). To ensure that findings resembled patterns we would find using
inductive techniques, we brought in the third author, who had not partici-
pated in the first rounds of coding. In this phase, every quote addressing
outcomes of harassment was coded. This process yielded patterns similar to
those we had identified in our initial rounds of coding. Many interviewees
described harassing experiences and job transitions that had occurred sev-
eral years prior. To validate retrospective accounts, we verified the timing
of job transitions and wages using employment history calendars in our
342 GENDER & SOCIETY/June 2017
survey data. These additional details are integrated throughout discussion of
the qualitative data. Taken together, this mixed-methods approach helps
identify how sexual harassment influences women’s attainment. To protect
confidentiality, we use pseudonyms for individuals and employers.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT, JOB CHANGE, AND FINANCIAL
In bivariate analyses, women who experienced unwanted touching or
multiple harassing behaviors in 2003 reported significantly greater finan-
cial stress in 2005 (t = –2.664, p ≤ .01). Some of this strain may be due to
career disruption, as harassment targets were especially likely to change
jobs. As shown in Figure 1, 79 percent of targets as compared to 54 per-
cent of other working women started a new primary job in either 2004 or
2005 (χ2 = 9.53, p ≤ .01). We next estimate multivariate models to learn
whether these patterns may be attributed to differences in work, individ-
ual, or family characteristics.
In Model 1 of Table 2, harassment targets reported significantly greater
financial stress. This effect is comparable to experiencing other negative
life events—serious injury or illness, incarceration, assault—suggesting
FIGURE 1: Percentage of Working Women Reporting Job Change (2003–
McLaughlin et al. / EFFECTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT 343
that sexual harassment may have analogous “scarring” effects (Western
2006). Although other job characteristics were less predictive, several indi-
vidual and family characteristics were associated with financial stress.
TABLE 2: Ordinary Least Squares Estimates of Financial Stress (2005)
Model 1 Model 2
Sexual harassment (2003) 0.720* 0.511
Job change (2004–2005) 0.582**
Supervisory authority −0.299 −0.315
Work hours 0.001 0.004
Logged employees −0.046 −0.038
Industry percent women 0.001 0.001
Temporary job −0.258 −0.332
Long-term career job −0.311 −0.283
Individual and family characteristics
White 0.059 0.096
Years education −0.067 −0.073
Married/cohabiting −0.654** −0.665**
Mother 1.066*** 1.069***
Negative life event
Constant 4.995*** 4.604***
Observations 286 286
Adjusted R-squared .149 .172
NOTE: Unstandardized coefficients; standard errors in parentheses.
*p ≤ 0.05, **p ≤ 0.01, ***p ≤ 0.001, two-tailed test.
344 GENDER & SOCIETY/June 2017
Married/cohabiting women felt less stress than single/noncohabiting women
in meeting financial obligations; mothers reported greater financial stress
than childless women. As the analyses are limited to working women, such
aggregate differences are likely linked to the greater earnings and financial
stability afforded to dual-earner families (89 percent of romantic partners
worked at least part-time). The effect of recent births is nonsignificant,
though some new mothers likely left the labor force completely.
In Model 2 of Table 2, we test whether the increased financial stress
reported by harassment targets can be attributed to their greater likelihood
of changing jobs. Analyzing consecutive waves of YDS data, we can estab-
lish clear temporal order between sexual harassment (2003), job change
(2004–2005), and financial stress (2005). In addition to having a strong
direct effect on financial stress (β = .582, p ≤ .01), job change reduces the
effect of harassment below standard significance levels. Following Baron
and Kenny (1986), we calculate that 35 percent of the total effect of sexual
harassment on financial stress is mediated through job change (dividing the
indirect effect [a*b = .048] by the total effect [c’+a*b = .137]). Targets of
sexual harassment were 6.5 times as likely as nontargets to change jobs in
2004–2005, net of the other variables in our model (unstandardized β =
1.878; standardized regression coefficients are shown in Figure 2).
In our previous analyses, we chose a high threshold to assess sexual
harassment—unwanted touching or at least four different harassing
behaviors—in an effort to address the effects of severe and pervasive
workplace harassment. We therefore replicated Table 2 using more inclu-
sive measures, thus increasing the size of the “harassed” group. Specifically,
we examine (1) an additive index of the number of harassing behaviors,
FIGURE 2: Mediational Model of Sexual Harassment, Job Change, and
NOTE: Standardized coefficients. To calculate the proportion of the effect that is mediated,
we divide the indirect effect (a*b = .048) by the total effect (c’+a*b = .137).
McLaughlin et al. / EFFECTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT 345
ranging from 0 to 7 (mean = 1.2); (2) unwanted touching or at least three
different harassing behaviors, a slightly lower threshold of severe harass-
ment (reported by 19 percent); and (3) subjectively labeling harassing
experiences as sexual harassment (12 percent). Findings for the lower
threshold harassment measure and additive index were robust to our pri-
mary analyses; however, subjective sexual harassment did not predict
financial stress (not shown, available by request).
Additionally, our quantitative analyses identify whether harassment
occurred in 2003, yet we do not know if those labeled “non-targets” expe-
rienced workplace harassment in the following year. Although the specific
items differ slightly from those asked in 2003, some sexual harassment
items were also available in 2004, at age 30 or 31. To test the robustness
of our earlier findings, we examined whether harassment in 2004 or
across either year influenced 2005 financial stress. Results for 2004 sex-
ual harassment were comparable to the models presented above. Moreover,
the coefficient for severe harassment grew in both size and magnitude
when 2003 and 2004 measures were combined.
We also looked at men’s experiences. When men are included in our
models, our main findings are largely robust but coefficients are weaker
in magnitude. When models are separated by gender, however, sexual
harassment in 2003 does not predict men’s financial stress. This finding is
consistent with research showing that men are likely to obtain relatively
high-paying jobs even when their school or work trajectory is disrupted
(Dwyer, Hodson, and McCloud 2012).
Together, these analyses suggest that sexual harassment in the early thir-
ties can have consequences for women’s attainment. Next, we draw on our
qualitative data to better understand this relationship. Because interviews
were conducted in 2003 and encompassed participants’ entire work history,
these findings also shed light on whether and how harassment experienced
in the early to midtwenties similarly impacts women’s careers.
MECHANISMS LINKING SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND
I had one month off. I quit, and I didn’t have a job. That’s it, I’m outta here.
I’ll eat rice and live in the dark if I have to.—Lisa
Exiting a harassing work environment is one option along a continuum of
mobilization responses (Blackstone, Uggen, and McLaughlin 2009). But, as
Lisa, a project manager at an advertising agency, suggests, many women
346 GENDER & SOCIETY/June 2017
preferred this response. Megan, a waitress, believed that targets do not report
harassers except as a last resort when “they can’t financially afford to quit
their job.” Two of her coworkers filed a sexual harassment claim after facing
inappropriate comments and touching from two line cooks. Megan says her
coworkers feared their harassers, if confronted, would sabotage customers’
orders and the tips that made up a large proportion of their earnings.
Rachel quit her fast-food job after a coworker grabbed her from behind
and “rubbed up against her.” Rachel’s attorney advised that she did not
have a strong case unless it occurred again and her employer failed to take
action, a risk Rachel was unwilling to take. Troubled by the harassing
experience, Rachel was equally disappointed by her employer’s response,
who did not fire the harasser until after she consulted an attorney: “This
man had already done it to [my coworker], but then I go and take it to a
lawyer and then they do something. . . . After that happened, I was just
totally disgusted and I quit.”
Exiting a harassing environment can lead to significant losses. As
Lisa’s opening quote reveals, she was willing to sacrifice basic necessi-
ties, including electricity and a balanced diet, to escape an intolerable
work environment. Even when targets are able to find work right away,
harassment contributed to financial strain for several interview partici-
pants, consistent with our quantitative findings. Interviewees attributed
this to unemployment and career uncertainty, diminished hours or pay,
and the anxiety associated with starting over in a new position.
While interviewees described the immediate effects of job exit on earn-
ings and financial stress, we were also interested in how women’s careers
may have shifted after experiencing sexual harassment. Using the longi-
tudinal survey data to analyze targets’ complex work histories, we found
that job change, industry change, and reduced work hours were common.
Although some found an equivalent or higher-paying position, some
women’s earnings fell precipitously in subsequent years. To illustrate
these patterns, Figure 3 shows earnings trajectories for four YDS partici-
pants who experienced harassment in 2003.
While working as a flight attendant in 2003, Janet reported offensive
jokes, questions about her private life, and unwanted touching. Although
her earnings remained stable during her 8 years with the airline, they
declined precipitously in 2006 when she began work as a hospital con-
cierge. Shannon, a registered nurse, cut her weekly hours from 28 to 12 in
early 2005, and then to less than 8 hours later that year. In contrast to Janet
and Shannon, Candace worked full-time, in the same career, through-
out young adulthood. Although she also reported multiple harassing
behaviors—including offensive jokes, questioning about her private life,
McLaughlin et al. / EFFECTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT 347
and uncomfortable staring—she did not define her experiences as sexual
harassment. Still, she reported them to her supervisor and changed
employers in 2004, reporting a 10 percent reduction in hourly pay. It took
Candace until 2009 to match her pre-harassment (2002) hourly wage.
Lastly, Peggy reported a significant detour on her path to steady, long-
term work. Combining two low-wage jobs, she worked 60 hours per week
in 2002. She was sexually harassed while working full-time as a family sup-
port specialist at a community center in 2003. Peggy left this position after
13 months, briefly working at a bank call center in 2005, before returning to
her previous industry for the remainder of the study period. While most
women’s earnings increased throughout young adulthood, the stalled or
declining earnings these and many other harassment targets experienced may
be due to leaving a bad situation or reduced human and firm-specific capital.4
Sexual Harassment and the Reduction of Human Capital
I didn’t want to work for Venture Module. I had no interest in computer
hardware whatsoever. And I took the position there because I felt like I had
to. I went to a position where I am pretty much solitary. I work by myself.
Which is the way that I want it.—Pam
In her early twenties, Pam worked as a part-time filing clerk at a bank.
There for four years, she was promoted several times, eventually earning
FIGURE 3: Illustrative Work Trajectories of Sexual Harassment Targets.
348 GENDER & SOCIETY/June 2017
almost $9 per hour as a full-time accountant. The following exchange with
her coworker, Paul, occurred shortly before she left the company:
[Paul] goes, “Pam, do you ever wonder why Bill uses the photocopier over
here when he has one right in front of his desk?” And I said, “No. Why?” I
didn’t know. He goes, “Oh you’re kidding me.” And I go, “What are you
talking about?” I had no idea what he was talking about. And he says, he
just started talking about things. He goes, “You’ve never noticed this?
You’ve never noticed he stares at you?” . . . He would like put his hand out
like this [mimics cupping buttocks] after I’d walk by. . . . There was stuff I
didn’t, it was worse, I didn’t even know about. He had drawn pictures of
me on the computer and had showed people.
Bill was reprimanded after Pam learned his behavior, but like Rachel,
Pam was disappointed that her employer “never said, ‘We’ve handled it.’
They never said, ‘We’ll put aside your fears’ or you know, ‘Do you feel
comfortable?’ They never did any of that.” As a result, Pam took a part-
time job and reduced her hours at the bank. Her survey responses confirm
that she worked 20 hours per week at a bakery for $6.50 per hour, eventu-
ally working with a temp agency while seeking a permanent job.
The experience scarred Pam, leaving her distrusting of others. She
received support from her coworkers after the harassment was exposed,
yet none of the colleagues who corroborated the harassment confronted
Bill as his behavior worsened. Pam saw this as a betrayal and said the
experience and another incident at a subsequent job “marred me because
I don’t trust people that I work with.” Despite her lack of interest in com-
puters, Pam “wanted to find a position where I wasn’t out in the public
eye.” Her preferred isolation limited Pam’s career options and earning
potential. Her career trajectory, as described in her surveys, changed dra-
matically after leaving her position at the bank. After working there from
1992 to 1996, she bounced between nine different employers over four
years in a series of short-term jobs paying between $20,000 and $30,000
Hannah’s experience shows how misogynistic work environments
influence attainment. Her coworkers at an Internet advertising agency
were a “litany of frat boys” who would tell homophobic jokes and send
officewide emails that included “horrible diatribes, like literally shocking,
shocking, shocking emails.” Although she worked hard, Hannah’s career
stalled because she refused to participate in the crude and derogatory
workplace culture: “In the end it was really a bad move for me because I
didn’t get promoted, I got passed over all the time because I was seen as
McLaughlin et al. / EFFECTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT 349
like not a team player, because I disengaged.” Like many women, Hannah
found herself between a rock and a hard place—either participate in the
misogynistic culture at work (only to be cast aside or ignored because of
her gender) or speak up and resist, leaving no chance for moving up in the
Although Hannah was never personally targeted, she devoted two years
to a company where she was an outsider. Unlike the cases above, she
could not attribute her lack of advancement to severing ties with the com-
pany. Instead, her employers were unwilling to invest in her future. Lisa,
too, saw her responsibilities wane after she exposed a hostile work envi-
ronment. Her relationships with supervisors and coworkers weakened, she
felt heavily surveilled, and her duties were reduced because “I’m sure
some of it was, ‘We just can’t trust her.’” As long as Lisa remained com-
plicit in the offensive workplace culture, her position was secure. After
challenging the harassment, Lisa recalled, “I would never become friends
with these people, my boss would never be a mentor, I would never, you
know, have any relationship with these people. So that was rough and
finally I just quit.” Lisa was ostracized by coworkers who, consistent with
past research, viewed harassing behaviors as trivial and failed to support
targets (Loy and Stewart 1984; Quinn 2002). Though hired by a competi-
tor company after one month unemployed, she lost earnings because the
original firm “compensated its employees monetarily spectacularly.”
After these jobs, her earnings dropped precipitously, working as a waitress
and a personal shopper.
As individual employees, Hannah and Lisa were limited in their ability
to transform their workplace cultures. No longer willing to tolerate a har-
assing work environment, Hannah thought “it wouldn’t be worth me trying
to spend all my energy to change that culture, when it would be so much
easier for me to find a better place where I fit in.” Like Pam, Hannah’s
experience at the Internet advertising agency changed her outlook. Instead
of preferring isolation, however, she simply avoided toxic work environ-
ments. In workplaces like Hannah’s and Lisa’s, sexual harassment is one
of several practices that limit women’s advancement and cast them as
outsiders (Acker 1990; Denissen and Saguy 2014; Reskin and McBrier
2000). Jordan, a police officer, told us of women officers who quit the force
when sexually harassed. One woman “pulled over a stolen vehicle and
nobody came” although other officers were “eating breakfast literally like
six blocks from where she was.” This practice of ignoring calls for backup
echoes Texeira’s (2002) study of sexual harassment among African
American women police officers defined as “troublemakers.”
350 GENDER & SOCIETY/June 2017
While Jordan’s colleague was abandoned in the line of duty, Angela
was berated by five salesmen at a car dealership, forfeiting her commis-
sion, and leaving the room in tears:
It was like $200, you know, it was a big deal, but it was not worth the emo-
tional distress. . . . He did take the commission, but they kept me in the
room for another fifteen minutes . . . physically blocked the door, and they
just kind of lectured at me. . . . I held it together for as long as I could . . .
once they had seen the tears, they had gotten the reaction out of me that
they wanted and at that point they kind of disbanded and let me out.
After four months at the dealership, Angela took a pay cut to work as a
teacher’s assistant, earning $8 per hour. Although sexual harassment is
conceptually isolable from gender discrimination and workplace bully-
ing, these behaviors often overlap in practice. Many interviewees
described toxic work environments where harassment combined with
other practices to legitimate organizational hierarchies and exclude
women. These stories illustrate why Hannah, and other women, opt to
switch careers over “bargaining with patriarchy” (Kandiyoti 1988).
Indeed, sexual harassment and mistreatment of women in masculine
workplaces contributes to gender segregation and gender gaps in attain-
Erin’s case shows another way harassment impacts earnings. After
working as a full-time custodian for 18 months, she was sexually harassed
by a recent hire who “had a problem with always wanting to hug on me
and touch me and say things he shouldn’t have been saying.” She
described leering, unwelcome touching, requests to hang photos of her in
his locker, and his remark that, “he’d been looking in the Victoria’s Secret
catalogue and was wondering what I’d look like in a pair of thong under-
wear.” Twice, “he actually unsnapped my bra. . . . He would laugh about
it and say, ‘Ha ha, lookit. I can unsnap your bra with one finger.’” Ignoring
her demands that he stop, Erin’s harasser attempted to “throw me in the
swimming pool . . . and he’d wrap his arms around me and try to hug me.”
Erin stopped working after her harasser injured her back. She explained,
“He picked me up, he bounced me, and he popped something in my lower
back. . . . They told me it was [a strained lumbar], but it feels like there’s
something actually pinched in there.” At the time of her interview, several
months after the harassment began, Erin was receiving workers’ compen-
sation which provided only two-thirds of her wages. She was angry about
her losses, explaining that “I only make enough to cover exactly what
everything is here. And I have no money left over. . . . I’m probably gonna
McLaughlin et al. / EFFECTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT 351
have to rob Peter to pay Paul.” Erin hoped to return to work, but her injury
could have long-term consequences. If she could not meet the physical
demands of her position, or similar jobs, the experience and skills she
accumulated would not transfer elsewhere. In the years following her
harassment, Erin reported declining wages, earning 24 percent less in
2003 despite reporting no job change. Her earnings rose slightly in 2005
after she took a maintenance position for a new employer, but her $12.50
hourly wage was still 20 percent lower than the pay she received before
In her pioneering work, MacKinnon (1979, 216) argued that sexual
harassment “undercuts women’s autonomy outside the home” and rein-
forces economic dependence on men. This article empirically documents
the early career effects of sexual harassment on attainment. Harassment at
ages 29–30 increases financial stress in the early thirties. Roughly 35
percent of this effect can be attributed to targets’ job change, a common
response to severe sexual harassment. As our qualitative data suggest,
some women quit work to avoid harassers. Others quit because of dissat-
isfaction or frustration with their employer’s response. In both cases,
harassment targets often reported that leaving their positions felt like the
only way to escape the toxic workplace climate.
These findings have important theoretical implications for under-
standing the role of toxic workplace cultures in stifling women’s career
advancement. When gender appears “as a cloudburst, or as an isolated
cold front” that travels through the workspace, “women workers tend
not to see gender inequality as due to an oppressively chilly climate”
(Britton 2017, 23). While women are often able to ignore or minimize
gender inequality in such workplaces, largely explaining how it is repro-
duced, this was not the case for the harassing work environments
described by many of our interviewees. In contrast, women in our study
were not able to thrive as employees but were instead viewed as outsid-
ers or sex objects in a workplace climate that, as Hannah put it,
“wouldn’t be worth me trying to spend all my energy to change.”
Employer-led efforts to improve organizational culture, which extends
beyond sexual harassment, would likely help retain these employees and
reduce turnover costs.
This study also advances theoretical and empirical knowledge on gen-
der and work by showing the short-term, tangible costs to women of
352 GENDER & SOCIETY/June 2017
sexual harassment and toxic work environments. When men experience
disruptions to their school or work trajectory, they remain likely to obtain
relatively high-paying jobs (Dwyer, Hodson, and McCloud 2012). We
found that the same is not true for women. Further, a voluminous literature
documents the long-term effects of job disruption on financial stress and
earnings (Brand 2015; Couch and Placzek 2010), but it has not yet
addressed sexual harassment. We here conceptualize job transition fol-
lowing harassment as a less-than-voluntary job loss, with resulting short-
and long-term effects on employment trajectories. As Brand (2015, 371)
explains, “job displacement is an involuntary and often unforeseen disrup-
tive life event that induces abrupt changes in workers’ trajectories.”
The mixed-methods nature of this study was vital to understanding this
relationship, resulting in “complementary strengths and nonoverlapping
weaknesses” (Johnson and Onwuegbuzie 2004, 18). In particular, the
quantitative analyses revealed a basic statistical relationship between har-
assment and financial stress that operates through job change. Our qualita-
tive analyses provided much more detailed and proximal insights into
how harassment redirected women’s lives and careers. Our interview data
point to several specific ways harassment derails women’s careers beyond
this initial job change. Pam’s harassment left her distrusting and reclusive
while Hannah, Lisa, and Angela were pushed toward less lucrative careers
where they believed sexual harassment and sexist practices would be less
likely to occur. These and other women find themselves in the untenable
position of having to choose between participating in misogynistic cul-
tures at work, which does not serve them as women, or resisting these
cultures, leaving little chance for growth in their companies. In this
mixed-methods study, the key finding is thus corroborated across the two
approaches, providing greater confidence in conclusions about how and
why harassment disrupts careers.
Sexual harassment, which is largely overlooked in attainment research,
played a prominent role in shaping early career trajectories. Our quantita-
tive and qualitative results indicate that harassment experienced in wom-
en’s twenties and early thirties knocks many off-course during this
formative career stage. Even more, though most harassment research
focuses on direct targets, our study shows that challenging toxic work
environments has consequences even for those who are not targeted
directly. Lisa, Hannah, and other women in similar environments were
ostracized by coworkers for challenging misogyny in the workplace
even though they were not direct targets of harassment themselves.
Further, most quantitative studies of sexual harassment have focused
McLaughlin et al. / EFFECTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT 353
disproportionately on white-collar jobs. Extending previous research, we
find that women in pink- and blue-collar occupations are affected by
sexual harassment in the same way as women in white-collar careers.
Future research could examine questions at other life stages, such as
whether sexual harassment may operate as a push factor for women on the
verge of retirement. Such analyses could push gender theorizing on the
intersections of gender and age.
Our findings may also help to assess damages in sexual harassment
claims, as the long-term economic costs may be more substantial than
previously assumed. Injury is difficult to monetize (Sunstein and Shih
2004), and high turnover rates in a target’s profession may lower awards
meant to compensate for future lost wages. Adjusting monetary awards
based on the average length of employment among workers in similar
positions assumes that larger patterns of employee turnover and sexual
harassment vary independently. Our findings, however, expose endogene-
ity issues with this logic, as harassment and gender discrimination are
reflective of the culture of a workplace or industry. Although workers
must be targeted directly to have legal standing in a court of law, our find-
ings support Resnik’s (2004, 257) conclusion that cultures of harassment
inflict “collective and diffuse harms” by depriving workers of a diverse
and harassment-free workplace.
1. Respondents were also asked whether they had been physically assaulted by
a coworker, boss, or supervisor, which may indicate sexual assaults that are
closely related to harassment (Gibson et al. 2016). We exclude this item due to
concerns that the ambiguous wording may lead respondents to include things like
pushing, punching, and other forms of physical violence that are unrelated to
sexual harassment. When we include the three women who report physical
assault in our harassment measure, our main findings are identical.
2. Our sample is 8 percent black, 6 percent Asian, 3 percent mixed race, and 4
percent American Indian, Pacific Islander, or some other race. Over half of Asian
women (n = 13) identify as Hmong.
3. This measure combines five negative life events: (1) serious personal injury/
illness; (2) breakup of serious romantic relationship; (3) jail; (4) assault, battery,
robbery, or rape; and/or (5) death of spouse/partner. Between 16 and 25 percent
of women experienced a negative life event each year.
4. These patterns are echoed in the larger sample as well. Prior to their 2003
sexual harassment, the biweekly earnings of harassment targets had been $134
higher than the earnings of other working women in the sample. By 2011,
354 GENDER & SOCIETY/June 2017
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Heather McLaughlin is an assistant professor in Sociology at Oklahoma
State University. Her research examines how gender norms are constructed
and policed within various institutional contexts, including work, sport,
and law, with a particular emphasis on adolescence and young adulthood.
Christopher Uggen is Regents Professor and Martindale chair in Sociology
and Law at the University of Minnesota. He studies crime, law, and social
inequality, firm in the belief that good science can light the way to a more
just and peaceful world.
Amy Blackstone is a professor in Sociology and the Margaret Chase Smith
Policy Center at the University of Maine. She studies childlessness and the
childfree choice, workplace harassment, and civic engagement.