Is Sexual Harassment on the Decline in the Finance Industry?

iStock_000000227687XSmallBy Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

The easy answer is yes and no. According to recent statistics compiled by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for FINS, a Wall Street Journal offshoot, sexual harassment charges in finance, insurance, and real estate have decreased by roughly half from 287 to 119 over a four year span beginning in 2005. Over the same period, sexual harassment charges across all industries remained relatively flat, hovering around 13,000 nationwide. This sounds like fantastic news for women in finance, but as we all know numbers can be deceiving.

According to the EEOC’s Lyn McDermott, “Like victims of other forms of discrimination, many victims of harassment do not file charges,” She continued, “On the other hand, not all charges are meritorious. The merit factor rate is a closer measure of the percentage of meritorious claims filed with EEOC because it represents all charge resolutions in which the charging party received a benefit. Merit factors include negotiated settlements (including mediation), conciliations, and withdrawals where the parties have reached a private settlement. The merit factor rate for sexual harassment charges in the past five years has ranged between 28.6 and 30.3 percent.”

Other Discrimination Complaints Down Too

These types of statistics fluctuate for many different reasons, most of which are impossible to pinpoint. What we do know is that fewer charges filed doesn’t necessarily equate to fewer incidences of sexual harassment.

According to Fatima Graves, the Vice President for Education and Employment at the National Women’s Law Center, statistics are a useful tracking device, but they certainly do not tell the full story. When considering the recent decline in the number of sexual harassment charges in finance, we must also take the unpredictable economy into account. Being afraid of retaliation after filing a sexual harassment complaint is by no means a new fear for women, but in an industry where layoffs have become quite common, it can seal your fate as another victim of the finance industry- in more ways than one. `

“I think that we’re still trying to sort out the impact of workforce reductions and layoffs on anti-discrimination complaints. There has been a sharp rise in pregnancy discrimination and age discrimination complaints – two populations that have been particularly vulnerable in terms of workforce reductions, but employees also fear that they may lose their jobs if they complain of harassment. This sort of fear of retaliation – particularly in this economy – could certainly have an impact on the number of reported sexual harassment charges,” Graves said.

McDermott is quick to point out that retaliation is illegal and though it’s true that many women have expressed concern over being fired for filing a charge, it’s not the only reason why women remain silent. “It is hard to say why victims of harassment don’t come forward. Some women may fear they’ll be perceived as complainers, while others may believe that their employers expect them to take care of the matter themselves,” McDermott said.

Addressing the Problem

For employers, it can be incredibly difficult to address the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace if there are few reliable numbers that illustrate the magnitude of the problem. Regardless of this fact, it is the responsibility of managers to make sure that female employees are not working in a hostile environment.

“Prevention is key to eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace,” McDermott said. “The best way to stop harassment is to make clear that it will not be tolerated. Employers should train managers to recognize and react to harassment and should educate employees about their rights. It is very critical that employers formulate and distribute a written policy against harassment.”

In recent years large banks and finance firms have implemented policies designed to prevent hostile work environments, with many such as Morgan Stanley and Bank of America declaring zero tolerance for sexual harassment.

“Employers should take a number of steps, including enhancing employee training, ensuring that there are appropriate procedures for addressing harassment, and responding promptly to and addressing any complaints of harassment. Employers can even track their own statistics in order to get a better handle on the problem at their company,” Graves said.

Women Must Make Their Voices Heard

When it comes to something as severe as sexual harassment, it is women’s responsibility to make their discomfort in certain situations known, but sometimes it isn’t always that easy.

“Ideally, a victim of harassment should clearly communicate to the harasser that the conduct is unwelcome. Of course, there may be situations where this is too intimidating and, thus, failure to state directly that the conduct is unwelcome would not necessarily defeat a claim,” McDermott said. “That being said, the victim has an obligation to take reasonable steps to avoid harm from the harassment.”

If you are being sexually harassed at your workplace, it’s a good idea to keep records describing the harassing conduct, the dates the events occurred, the names of witnesses (if any), and the aggressor’s actions. When the EEOC investigates allegations of sexual harassment, the first thing the organization does is look at the circumstances, such as the nature of the harassment and the context in which the alleged incidents occurred.

Graves also recommends reaching out to friends and family for support and speaking to female co-workers to see if they have experienced similar conduct. “If none of those steps bring the harassment to an end,” Graves said, “the employee may want to contact the EEOC or a private attorney for advice.”

No matter what conclusions are drawn from the statistics, it’s clear that sexual harassment continues to be a serious problem in the workplace. Employers, no matter what industry they’re in, should take steps to reduce, correct, and prevent harassment. Female employees have the right to work in an environment that is free from sexual harassment and women should be encouraged to report harassment and be made to feel their jobs are safe should a report be filed.