The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's fiscal year 2018 closed just a few days before the anniversary of the first stories about media mogul Harvey Weinstein's alleged sexual misconduct. Outrage against Weinstein and others in Hollywood began a national reckoning in which powerful men in media, politics, journalism and other fields have been publicly accused of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct.
That reckoning appears to have resulted in a substantial increase in the number of sexual harassment complaints received by the EEOC. That is of particular interest because sexual harassment claims had been in steady decline since 2010. There hadn't been more than 7,300 claims filed since 2012, but in 2018 that number is likely to be around 7,500.
According to a senior attorney adviser to the EEOC's chair, the number of sexual harassment claims the EEOC receives typically grow and decline in response to major news events and economic conditions. A poor economy, for example, often means layoffs and terminations. Some of these may be challenged as retaliation for making an internal complaint of sexual harassment, resulting in a charge being made with the EEOC.
The #MeToo movement is an example of a national news event that probably resulted in an increase in filings. Due to the specific controversy involved, the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Justice Brett Kavanaugh may well be another. For evidence, consider the aftermath of the 1991 hearings involving Justice Clarence Thomas. In the first quarter of FY 1992, the EEOC received 71 percent more sexual harassment complaints than in the first quarter of FY 1991. Overall, FY 1992 ended with a 50-percent increase in such complaints, and that began a steady increase that lasted five years.
Another indicator of change is the increasing demand for EEOC sexual harassment training among employers. The EEOC issued a new training series in 2016 after a report found sexual harassment to be persistent and pervasive in U.S. workplaces. Since the #MeToo movement took off last fall, demand for the training has outstripped availability.
Does the uptick in sexual harassment complaint mean more harassment is taking place? That's unclear. It's quite possible that people who would have remained silent in the past are now making their complaints known to the agency. There is also no way of knowing whether the percentage of valid complaints has changed.
"The EEOC has been all over harassment for many years," said the senior attorney adviser to the EEOC's chair. "The rest of the nation kind of woke up to it in October of last year."