Nearly half of all Maine workers have experienced some form of sexual harassment on the job, and the majority are afraid to report it, according to a new survey.
The survey of more than 500 Maine workers and managers found that female workers were three times as likely as their male counterparts to say they’ve experienced harassment, and nearly twice as likely to say they would be putting their careers at risk if they reported it.
Organizers of the survey said the results should act as a wake-up call for Maine companies and organizations. The survey was conducted by Portland-based Pan Atlantic Research on behalf of MaineCanDo, a coalition formed in 2018 to help reduce workplace harassment in Maine.
“If these numbers are even close to true, then this is a public health epidemic,” said Betsy Peters, a co-founder of MaineCanDo.
The survey’s findings paint a grim picture of workplace culture in Maine. It found that nearly 58 percent of women and 19 percent of men have experienced sexual harassment in a Maine workplace. Of those who experienced harassment, about 40 percent said it occurred on a daily or weekly basis.
Overall, about 49 percent of respondents said they have experienced workplace sexual harassment. Roughly 20 percent said it happened at their current job, while 29 percent said it happened at a previous job. The survey did not ask either group how recently the harassment occurred.
Less than 40 percent of those who experienced workplace harassment said they reported it to someone within the organization. Among those who reported the behavior, about 38 percent said they suffered retaliation as a result.
The survey defines sexual harassment as offensive remarks, leering/ogling, derogatory comments about the respondent’s gender, touching the respondent, exposing himself or herself to the respondent, displaying sexist materials, threatening retaliation unless sexual favors are given or implying a promotion or monetary compensation in exchange for sex.
Offensive comments were the most common form of harassment at about 78 percent, followed by leering/ogling at 54 percent and derogatory comments about gender at 54 percent. Respondents could choose more than one answer.
The least common choice was threats of retaliation or implied promotion at about 5 percent, followed by display of sexist materials at 26 percent, and touching or exposing at 30 percent.
The survey was conducted online and advertised via social media, company email messages to employees and published news articles. The survey’s creators acknowledged that its opt-in nature may have resulted in a higher incidence of affirmative responses than a survey based on random phone calls.
“People who would take the survey are a little bit more likely to be interested in the topic for one reason or another, and that of course could mean people who have experienced sexual harassment are more likely to want to take the survey,” said Jason Edes, director of research at Pan Atlantic.
In an effort to mitigate that potential bias, Edes said MaineCanDo asked its member companies to urge all of their employees to take the survey regardless of whether they had personally experienced or witnessed sexual harassment on the job. More than 200 Maine companies have signed on as members of the nonprofit.
Peters noted that sexual harassment surveys in other states conducted via random phone calls have produced similar results to the Maine survey. For example, a study conducted by the University of New Hampshire found that 52 percent of female workers in that state had experienced workplace sexual harassment, along with 22 percent of male workers.
Peters said a survey conducted by random phone calls would have exceeded MaineCanDo’s budget. She said her hope is that large companies and organizations in Maine will see the survey’s results and take the initiative to fund their own research on the topic of sexual harassment.
“We’re not trying to magnify anything,” Peters said. “We’re trying to begin a conversation.”
Another disturbing finding from the Maine survey was the high percentage of employees – and employers – who said they believe reporting sexual harassment is a risky career move. Of those taking the survey, 64 percent of employees said they believe a person who reports being sexually harassed is risking their career, as did about 49 percent of employers.
Survey respondents included 303 employees, in addition to 216 managers who participate in human resources policy decisions. More than three-fourths of the workers who took the survey were women. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 5.6 percent for worker responses, and plus or minus 6.7 percent for employer responses.
MaineCanDo volunteer Jennifer Sporzinski, a senior vice president at Brunswick-based Coastal Enterprises Inc., said the survey’s results validate MaineCanDo’s mission and show that employers in the state need to do more to improve workplace culture.
“My overall reaction was, ‘Yep, not surprising,’ which is not a great reaction,” Sporzinski said.