New research shows that black women are more likely to experience and report sexual harassment at work than white women, according to a study that surveyed sexual harassment complaints between the years 1997 and 2016. Over that 20-year period, reports on the whole decreased by 40 percent, but less so for black women. The researchers behind the study believe that this may be because black women are more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace.
The study focused on sexual assault on a macro level, and after analyzing data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The study, titled, "Race, Threat and Workplace Sexual Harassment: The Dynamics of Harassment in the US, 1997‐2016," was published in the journal of Gender, Work, and Organization.
The research concluded two things: First, when unemployment rates increase, the number of sexual harassment complaints also rise. "When men feel threatened – in this case, by economic factors out of their own control – they become more likely to engage in sexual harassment," they reported. "When the unemployment rate goes up, producing greater social strain and a need to assert dominance, reported sexual harassment goes up as well."
For the researchers, the correlation between increases in unemployment and increased reporting of sexual harassment reaffirms that "sexual harassment in the workplace is about establishing power and dominance."
The study also concluded that increasing awareness around sexual harassment in the workplace have disproportionately benefited white women. Meanwhile, "women of color are much more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace."
"The shift from sexual harassment of white women to African-American women indicates that harassers are conscious of power relationships, and choose to target more vulnerable women in their workplaces," the study concludes.
Since 1997, the number of sexual harassment reports filed with the EEOC dropped from 16,000 down to 9,600 in 2016. But along racial lines, that dip varied greatly. The number of white women reporting sexual harassment between 1997 and 2016 decreased far more dramatically; down by 70 percent. For black women, the number or reports only decreased by 38 percent. Furthermore in 1997, black women were only 1.7 times more likely to report harassment than white women. In 2016, black women were 3.4 times more likely to report.
For researchers, the extreme difference in reporting indicates that black women are being sexually harassed more often than white women.
"We've made great strides in reducing sexual harassment in the workplace, but those benefits have all gone to white women, and mostly to young white women," said Dan Cassino, one of the authors of the study, when its findings were announced. "It seems as though men have gotten more careful about who they're harassing and have been targeting women of color, who may be less likely to report the harassment."
This disparity revealed in this most recent study on sexual assault speaks to larger systemic inequalities black women experience in the United States, particularly in the workplace. According to census data, black women are paid $0.61 for every dollar a white man is paid. In 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that black women makeup the largest group of minimum wage workers in the country.