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December 14, 2020

Sexual harassment in the post-Covid-19 work environment

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Will sexual harassment in the workplace become less important in the post-Covid-19 work environment? Maybe, but probably not. Working from home may just move the harassment online. 

At first glance, if more work remains distanced in the post-Covid-19 world, opportunities for workplace sexual harassment would seemingly necessarily decline. But undermining this optimistic projection is the reality that industries that are most likely to remain distanced—those mainly employing white-collar workers—already have lower rates of sexual harassment than industries where most work can’t be conducted remotely. 

For those whose work can remain distanced, can we hope that their experiences of sexual harassment will decline? Not necessarily. The most common form of sexual harassment—hostile work environment harassment that is sex-based but not “sexual” as commonly understood—does not require in-person contact. This form of sexual harassment undermines an individual’s work performance because of their sex or gender by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment. Distanced work is not immune to hostile work environment harassment; it may even facilitate it through expanded digital opportunities.

Indeed, electronically sharing humiliating private messages and sexually suggestive or hostile jokes, photos, videos, and memes—which can be widely circulated with a touch of a key—is easier than in person, and can readily be employed to shame, intimidate, or threaten targets. And unlike in-person meetings, it can be fairly easy for those in higher positions to undermine their target’s work performance by “accidently” muting, talking over, or excluding them from Zoom calls.

Furthermore, even those who largely work remotely may be required to show up at a mostly empty workplace on occasion. Isolated workplaces are a known risk factor for sexual harassment, and in-person harassment may increase as fewer people in the workplace means fewer potential witnesses.

Also problematic is that reported cases may drop even without an actual decline in harassment. Sexual harassment is substantially underreported, in part because victims rightly fear retaliation. Remote work may lead to even less reporting because what counts as sexual harassment is often unclear. This opacity is exacerbated with remote work if there is less exchange of information or if harassment takes new digital forms, leaving victims alone in deciphering whether specific behaviors should be reported. Less reporting may spuriously indicate an improved environment and in turn reduce pressure to stop harassment.

In addition to accelerating current trends to distanced work, the disruption to the workplace caused by Covid-19 may have other longer-term consequences, some positive, some less so. It is possible that our experience with Covid-19 might change some workplace norms for the better and limit opportunities for unwelcome sexual attention. For instance, will there be less hugging? More respect for personal space? Reduced travel and socializing? 

Less positive is that changes in workplace structure have legal ramifications as well. If former employees displaced because of Covid-19 turn to long-term independent contractor status, they lose government protection against employment discrimination, including sexual harassment (at least in the US). In the absence of legal remedies for these workers, there could be an increase in actual sexual harassment despite a decrease in reported harassment.

© Joni Hersch

Joni Hersch is the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Law and Economics at Vanderbilt University, and a Research Fellow of IZA.

Find more IZA World of Labor coronavirus content on our curated topics pages: National responses to Covid-19 and Covid-19—Pandemics and the labor market.

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