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New research can potentially explain why women do not report sexual harassment


On Friday and Saturday, a group of international scholars will present new research at a workshop on Gender and Development at The School of Business, Economics and Law in Gothenburg. Sonia Bhalotra, Professor of Economics, will present ongoing research about sexual harassment at workplaces.

The workshop will be held at The Department of Economics, University of Gothenburg, 29–30 November.

One of the speakers is Sonia Bhalotra, Professor of Economics at The University of Essex. Her paper is called "On the consequences of reporting workplace sexual harassment".

What can happen if you report sexual harassment?

portrait sonia bhalotra"Preliminary results of our ongoing research on this subject indicate that women who file lawsuits for sexual harassment are more likely to suffer unemployment and earnings losses, relative to women with similar qualifications. This may explain why women tend not to report harassment.” says Sonia Bhalotra.

"We are currently investigating whether there are positive spillovers for other women.

First, does a woman filing a lawsuit against a firm encourage other women to report? We can look at women in the same industry or the same municipality. This sort of dynamic fueled the #MeToo movement.

Second, does the productivity or position of women in the firm against which the lawsuit was brought improve? If the perceived risk of sexual harassment prevents women from attaining their potential, it seems plausible that a reported case will lead to corrective procedures which, in turn, may lead women in the firm to be happier and more productive.

We are also analyzing impacts on the firms against whom the lawsuits are filed. We find that they tend to shrink, and some exit. Smaller firms are most hurt. For the larger publicly listed firms, we find no impact on average on stock market prices in the week following the filing of the suit. It seems that a sexual harassment case needs to become a scandal before it hurts larger firms.

Our research uses administrative court data that contain every legal case of sexual harassment in Brazil during 2010-2018. In this period, almost 14,000 cases were filed. We link individual plaintiffs in the court data to longitudinal data containing the full population of employees in all registered firms in Brazil. This allows us to track both workers and firms over time, before and after the filing of a lawsuit, to identify any sharp changes in their labour market performance following a lawsuit. We use a statistical approach that is designed to isolate causal effects from correlations.

This research is collaborative with Diogo Britto, Catholic University of Milan, and Breno Sampaio, University of Pernambuco, Brazil. It contributes to the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology project, a five-year ESRC-funded programme led by the University of Essex.

Our co-author Diogo Britto will also be at our Gender conference in Gothenburg. He will present a paper which shows that unemployment leads men to commit domestic violence.

This paper uses the same data sources, linking judicial cases of domestic violence to the employment records of the perpetrator. We use a research design that ensures that we capture only those cases of unemployment that occur because the industry or region is declining, not cases where the man’s performance leads to unemployment. This helps to address the common problem of reverse causality."

How common is sexual harassment at workplaces?

"We do not know. Women tend not to report it, possibly fearing stigma or career damage. A small fraction report and an even smaller fraction take cases to court.

I found some data from surveys which indicate that rates of sexual harassment are very high. For example, a 2016 report by the Trade Unions Congress reveals that 52 % of women in a UK survey reported experiencing sexual harassment at work. Two different surveys in American indicate rates of 25 % and 44 % respectively. The latter survey also asked women if they had reported their case to the firm and of the 44 % who said they experienced sexual harassment at work, only 6 % said they reported it.

The fact that data on sexual harassment – and in fact all forms of violence against women – is rare is a major barrier to research and policy in this area."

Your research is broad – for example domestic violence, child development, civil conflict and global health. Why did you start doing research on workplace sexual harassments?

"While my research is diverse, a large part of it is concerned with gender, and another part with health including mental health. I feel strongly about violence against women as a social injustice. I am an economist by training and economists have written scores of papers that illuminate the causes of the gender pay gap but very few that help us understand the causes of or solutions to the problem of violence against women.

One reason is that there are hardly any systematic data available for research. Women don’t report but it also seems that governments and international organizations don’t care enough to document and monitor the problem. In another research paper co-authored with Damian Clarke (University of Santiago Chile), Joseph Gomes (Université Catholique de Louvain) and Atheendar Venkataramani (University of Pennsylvania), we provide evidence to support the notion that woman-specific issues are not prioritized by male-dominated governments, showing that gender quotas that raise the share of women in Parliament lead to sharp reductions in maternal mortality.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is interesting from a social justice and human rights perspective and additionally from a productivity perspective. There is evidence from the research of other scholars that friction at the workplace can lower productivity and it seems plausible that perceived risks of sexual harassment inhibit women from reaching their potential and delivering their best."

You have been a visiting Professor at the School of Business, Economics and Law in Gothenburg. How was that compared to your job at the University of Essex?

"My job at the University of Essex is great but it is always good to leave the routine and breathe some fresh air. Visiting Gothenburg, I thought the faculty and staff were unusually friendly and relaxed and kind, I got to meet my co-author Joe Vecci who is full of energy and great fun to talk to, and I had interesting discussions with several other interesting members of the staff and student body. I was very impressed by the baskets of fruit that are available to share! I gave a couple of department seminars and I organized two workshops in Gothenburg with Annika Lindskog and Joe Vecci – one in August 2018 on health and then this one – November 2019 – on gender. The workshops brought to Gothenburg an excellent group of international scholars with shared interests."

The workshop is open to listeners.
The Department of Economics, School of Business, Economics and Law, Vasagatan 1

Workshop on Gender and Development


Friday 29 November

12.55–13.50 Keynote E45

"Stereotypes in High Stake Decisions: Evidence from U.S. Circuit Courts", Daniel Chen (Toulouse)

13.50–15.10 Session 1, Room E45

"Abortion Laws and Women's Health", Hanna Mühlrad (Stockholm)

"Competition, Field of Study, and Mental Health", Rita Ginja (Bergen)

15.40–17.30 Session 2, Room E45

"Domestic violence – evaluating training programmes for men and women", Joe Vecci (Gothenburg)

"Gender Wage Gaps: Expectations versus Reality", Se Kyu Choi (Bristol)

"Parental Decision-Making and Educational Investments: Experimental Evidence from Tanzania, Simon Schürz (Gothenburg)

17.45–18.45 Keynote, Room E45

"Perceived Gender Norms", David Yanigazawa-Drott (Zurich)

Saturday 30 November

09.10–10.30 Session 3, Room E45

"Unemployment shocks, unemployment insurance and domestic violence – evidence from mass layoffs", Diogo Britto (Milan)

"On the consequences of reporting workplace sexual harassment", Sonia Bhalotra (Essex)

10.30–11.00 Coffee Break, Room E45

11.00–13.00 Session 4: Room E45

"Gender and Government Formation", Pamela Campa (Stockholm)

"Is Parental Leave Costly for Firms and Coworkers?" Anne Brenoe (Zurich)

"Child Marriage Law, Gender Norms and Marriage Customs", Zaki Wahhaj (Kent)

14.00–14.40 Session 5: Room E45

"Cash transfers for delayed marriage", Annika Lindskog (Gothenburg)


Keynote, Room E45

"Preferences and Beliefs in the Marriage Market for Young Brides", Abigail Adams (Oxford)