“There’s the assumption that once everybody went separately and you were protected in your own home, that you wouldn’t see the same level of harassment,” says Ellen Pao, a tech investor and leading diversity advocate in the tech field. “It turned out that actually wasn’t the case.”
Pao heard early on in the pandemic that people were complaining of more harassment at work, challenging that assumption. She and the nonprofit she founded, Project Include, decided to find out more.
Project Include surveyed almost 3,000 tech workers around the U.S. between May 2020 and February 2021. The survey found that working remotely has not reduced harassment. In fact, many tech workers experienced more harassment than usual during the pandemic’s work-from-home period.
For the purpose of this survey, harassment was defined as behavior like yelling, requests for dates or sex, and uncomfortable or repeated questions about their identity or appearance. The survey also asked about workplace hostility, which was defined as behavior that was less severe than harassment but which could still create a harmful environment.
The most common types of harassment reported were based on age, gender, race and ethnicity. Women, transgender and non-binary people, Asians, African Americans, Latinos and Indigenous people all reported increases in harassment.
More than a quarter of the respondents said they had experienced a greater level of gender-based harassment than before the pandemic. That figure increased among those who were also minorities, transgender or non-binary.
For example, 39% of Asian women and non-binary people experienced more gender-based harassment, as opposed to around 25% of white women. 42% of transgender people experienced greater harassment.
Minority women were the most likely to report an increase in race-based hostility. 45% of women who identified as Black, African or African American reported increased race-based harassment, compared to 30% who identified as Asian or Asian American. An additional 14% of respondents said they had seen an increase in age-based harassment.
Possible explanations for the increase
According to Pao, much of the new harassment is occurring via chat, email or video conference. This may be because there is no one else involved in the conversation who could object or back up the employee. Also, the software tools themselves were not designed to fight harassment. There may be no way to report inappropriate behavior that occurs in these forums.
It’s important for employers to take note of this trend and to take reasonable steps to reduce the harassment. Whenever employers are made aware of specific instances of harassment, they have a legal duty to attempt to end the problem.