Sexual Harassment Statistics: Is the Truth in the Numbers?

Author: Allison Goldstein

#MeToo. #TimesUp. The hashtags keep coming, and along with them, the stories of women—high profile women, women who are often seen as popular and powerful—being sexually harassed. It seems incredible, but the more stories that come out, the less they seem like tabloid headlines; sexual harassment is, apparently, a widespread, deep-rooted problem.

Yet how prevalent is it? And does it really affect women inordinately more than men? Maybe it’s a case of “who can shout the loudest.” Or maybe it’s like fear of flying: because the news hypes up plane crashes, people develop irrational fear of flying (while the statistics point to a greater chance of being kicked to death by a donkey). [1]

So, what do the statistics say about sexual harassment?

Before getting wrapped up in numbers, it’s important to define what sexual harassment is, and what it is not. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment is “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” [2] The emphasis here seems to be on the verbal nature of the harassment; whereas the U.S. Justice Department defines sexual assault as being less verbal and more physical: “. . . any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.” [3]

Given where these definitions come from (EEOC vs. Justice Department), however, there is an added distinction between sexual harassment and sexual assault, which is that sexual harassment is more often interpreted as a workplace issue. In fact, most of the studies and surveys done have looked at it in this context, so the statistics that are available—which are already limited, at best—focus almost exclusively on sexual harassment in the workplace, or maintain that subtext.

What are the chances of being sexually harassed?

According to most surveys, if you’re a woman, you have about a 3 in 5 chance of experiencing sexual harassment, while if you’re a man, your chances are around or slightly less than 1 in 5 [4, 5].

While a 60% chance of being sexually harassed is definitely not good, it doesn’t seem as prevalent as people are claiming . . . that is, until you take into account that these figures are for reported cases of sexual harassment. According to estimates by the EEOC, 80% of people who have experienced harassment, male or female, never file a formal complaint about it [5]. Other studies have indicated an even smaller likelihood of reporting sexual harassment, with most results pointing to single-digits [6–11]. Cochran and colleagues’ (1997) study of university staff and students, for instance, revealed a reporting rate as low as 2% [11].

If you add in all of those unfiled complaints, the statistics look a lot more dire.

Why is the level of reporting so low?

Fear of retaliation is probably the most common explanation—and it’s not an unfounded fear. A 2003 study by Cortina and Magley, for instance, found that 75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation. [12] Another reason people fail to report sexual harassment is uncertainty about what defines “harassment.” The EEOC found that when people were asked simply whether or not they had experienced sexual harassment at work, 1 in 4, or 25%, said yes. However, when harassment was defined with specific acts, such as sexual coercion or crude jokes, the number of people who reported having experienced this sort of treatment more than doubled. [13]

Okay, so who’s doing the harassing?

If data is limited on people who experience sexual harassment, it’s even more limited on the perpetrators. There have been no studies asking people if (or how often) they have sexually harassed someone else since 1987; the only more recent data comes from the Navy. According to a 2000 report, 67% of the Navy men who were surveyed reported having sexually harassed women in their first year of service. This included making “crude sexual remarks either publicly or privately,” as well as “threatening women with some sort of retaliation for not being sexually cooperative.” [14] However, only men were surveyed, which means that this data merely lends more support to the “3 in 5” likelihood of women being harassed; it doesn’t reveal anything about which gender is more likely to be the perpetrator.

The only other sources of information about perpetrator gender are anecdotal, and these point to men as the primary perpetrators. For instance, Genie Harrison, a Los Angeles-based attorney who specializes in workplace sexual harassment cases, says that women can be the harassers . . . but it’s rare. “Men can be victims and women can be abusers, and I’ve represented victims where a woman was the harasser, but I would say it’s at best a 99.9%-to-.01% ratio.” [15]

So why does it seem like men are always the harassers and women are always the ones being harassed?

In a word: power. Both historically and currently, in most facets of American culture, and certainly in the workforce, men hold significantly more power than women. Consider the following statistics: as of January 2018, women currently hold just 5.2% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. [16] In 2016, women made up 20.2% of board seats of the Fortune 500. [17] In the legal field, women make up 45% of associates but only 22% of partners and 18% of equity partners. [18] And in the political realm, women hold only 24.9% of seats in state legislatures. [19] In short, most women do not hold positions of power at their jobs. Men do.

Of course, holding power doesn’t inherently mean someone will sexually harass a subordinate. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkley, explains the effect of power leading to sexual harassment in this way: “…power makes you more impulsive. It makes you less worried about social conventions and less concerned about the effect of your actions on others.” [20] When we look at cases like Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly, this explanation makes sense. These men really didn’t have to worry about the effects of their actions, because, until a critical mass of women stood up and said “no more,” there were no consequences.

The upshot?

Statistics alone will probably never reveal just how much of a problem sexual harassment really is. This is because power dynamics, even if they shift, will never go away. However, the more aware people become of just what sexual harassment is, and safer people feel about coming forward with their allegations, the better the data will be. And the more the data can reveal, the more society can do to change some of those numbers for the better.


[6] Cortina & Berdhahl, 6%-13% — Lilia M. Cortina and Jennifer L. Berdahl, Sexual Harassment in Organizations: A Decade of Research in Review, The Sage Handbook of Organizational Behavior 469, 469-96 (J. Barling & C. L. Cooper eds., 2008).
[7] Culbertson et al., Navy, 6% to 8% filed a formal complaint — Amy L. Culbertson & Paul Rosenfield, Assessment of Sexual Harassment in the Active-Duty Navy, 6 Mil. Psychol. 69 (1994) (exploring experiences of women in the Navy);
[8] Schneider survey of women in different companies, 6% to 13% had filed a complaint. — Kimberly T. Schneider et al., Job-Related and Psychological Effects of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Empirical Evidence from Two Organizations, 82 J. of Applied Psychol. 401 (1997) (working women from different companies);
[9] MSPB 1988 study found that, in 1987, 5% of both female and male employees took some type of formal action. — U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Sexual Harassment in the Federal Government Update (1988) available at
[10] MSPB 1994, the rate had increased to 6% — U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Sexual Harassment in the Federal Workplace: Trends, Progress, Continuing Challenges (1994) available at
[11] Cochran et al. study of university staff and students showed a 2% rate. — Caroline C. Cochran et al., Predictors of Responses to Unwanted Sexual Attention, 21 Psychol. of Women Q. 207 (1997) (male and female university staff and students)
[12] Lilia M. Cortina & Vicki J. Magley, Raising Voice, Risking Retaliation: Events Following Interpersonal Mistreatment in the Workplace, 8:4 J. Occupational Health Psychol. 247, 255 (2003).
[16] Catalyst. Women CEOs of the S&P 500. New York: Catalyst, January 9, 2018.
[17] Deloitte and Alliance for Board Diversity, Missing Pieces Report: The 2016 Board Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards (2017).
[18] American Bar Association, “A Current Glance at Women in the Law” (2017), available at
[19] Center for American Women and Politics, “Women in State Legislatures 2017,” available at


Copyright: Image designed by and copyright of Patrick Rhodes