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Astral Codex Ten Podcast

Apr 19, 2018

[content note: sexual harassment]


Recent discussion of sexual harassment at work has focused on a few high-profile industries. But there has been relatively little credible research as to how rates really differ by occupation type.

There are many surveys of harassment rates in specific industries, but they can’t be credibly compared with one another. The percent of people who report sexual harassment varies wildly from survey to survey – thus studies finding that anywhere from 12 percent to 48 percent to 60 percent to 85 percent of women have been harassed at work. If a survey shows that 60% of female nurses get sexually harassed at work, does that mean nurses are victimized particularly often (because more than 12%) or are unusually safe (because less than 85%)? It doesn’t matter, because another study says only 19% of nurses get harassed.

Why do all these numbers differ so dramatically? The most important issue seems to be how you ask the question. “Have you ever been harassed?” gets numbers more like 12%; giving a long list of specific behaviors and asking “Have you ever experienced any of these?” gets numbers closer to 85%, depending on what the behaviors are. Surveys also differ on whether they ask all employees or just women, whether they include a time frame (eg “…in the past two years”), whether they specify that it had to be at work vs. work-related events, and whether they include witnessing someone else’s harassment. Taking these surveys entirely seriously would lead to the conclusion that Uber has the lowest sexual harassment rate of any company or industry in the world; I choose not to take them seriously.

This means we need investigations that use the same methodology across multiple fields. Whenever the media talks about this – see eg the Washington Post’s The Industries With The Worst Sexual Harassment Problem – they’re working off of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s records. But these are totally unsuitable for the task – they just report raw number of claims per industry. The industries that rank lowest in EEOC’s data tend to be small industries with very few women – for example, taken seriously the WaPo’s graph shows that mining has the least problem with sexual harassment of any industry in the world. Is this thanks to their uniquely progressive culture – or because there are practically no female miners? I’m going to say the second one. The takeaway that most real researchers take from the EEOC claims is that the lowest-paying and most mundane occupations – retail, restaurant work, hotel work, etc – have much higher sexual harassment rates than the prestigious occupations people generally talk about. Eyeballing the data, this looks basically true. But trying to get anything more fine-grained than that out of EEOC is basically hopeless.

I only know of two surveys that have even attempted to compare different fields in a principled way, and neither really inspires confidence.