Ending Discrimination and Harassment at Work

Policymakers can take steps to create workplaces that are safe and free from discrimination and harassment to the benefit of women, employers, and the economy.

Photo shows a single farmworker wearing a red and bending over in a green field against a hazy sky
A farmworker labors in a strawberry field near Ventura, California, August 2022. (Getty/Mario Tama)

Other chapters in the Playbook for the Advancement of Women in the Economy

Women today make up nearly half of the U.S. labor force, and yet they still frequently face discrimination and harassment in the workplace.1 A 2022 poll finds that nearly 1 in 3 women were “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about discrimination or harassment at work, with a greater proportion of Black women, Latinas, Asian American and Pacific Islander women, disabled women, and younger women reporting concern.2

A variety of federal laws offer protections against sex discrimination in the workplace, and many states and localities have their own anti-discrimination statutes.3 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits “treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of that person’s sex, including the person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy.”4 In the workplace, these protections extend to any employment decisions, such as hiring and compensation.5

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 requires employers to provide equal pay for equal work, meaning work of “equal skill, effort and responsibility under similar working conditions.”6 The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act of 2022 further protect women against discrimination at work on the basis of pregnancy.7 The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces these protections, and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) deals with issues of discrimination for federal contractors.8

Despite this suite of federal laws, women continue to face sex discrimination at work, and many women of color experience heightened discrimination at the intersection of sex, race, and ethnicity. A 2017 survey found that 42 percent of employed women overall, and 53 percent of Black women, report having experienced sex discrimination at work, such as earning less than a man doing the same job or being treated as incompetent because of their gender.9

Although not indicative of all instances of sex discrimination, charges filed with the EEOC provide insight into its prevalence. In 2022, there were 19,805 charges claiming sex discrimination filed with the agency, 27 percent of all discrimination charges, and 955 charges under the Equal Pay Act.10

Women voters say that ending workplace discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence is the second-most important policy action for Congress.11 Discrimination and harassment can reduce women’s earnings and career progression and contribute to worker turnover, creating economywide costs. Policy recommendations to address gender discrimination and harassment include strengthening equal pay protections and improving funding for enforcement. This chapter of the “Playbook for the Advancement of Women in the Economy” details the problems women face in the workplace due to discrimination and harassment, the economic benefits of resolving them, and the federal and state policy recommendations for doing so. Addressing workplace discrimination and harassment is crucial to create a sustainable and equitable economy for all.

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The problem

Discrimination and harassment manifest in the workplace for women in several ways. One way is apparent in the enduring gender wage gap, including in the form of gender discrimination in hiring and promotions. Another way is sexual harassment in workplaces, which tends to be underreported.

Gender wage gap

The gender wage gap reflects a range of issues, including occupational segregation, where women are overrepresented in low-paying jobs and underrepresented in high-paying ones, and differences in years of work experience due to disparities in domestic and caregiving responsibilities between men and women.12 But even when controlling for measurable factors such as occupation and industry, and years of experience, a sizable wage gap exists that experts have “often taken to be an estimate of the extent of discrimination—i.e., unequal pay for equally qualified workers.”13

Learn more about occupational segregation in the United States

Discrimination’s impact on wage gaps can be even greater for women of color; one study estimates that more than half of the wage gap between white men and Black women is due to labor market discrimination.14

Women also experience discrimination in promotions and hiring, which contributes to women’s underrepresentation in leadership positions and to the enduring gender wage gap. Research has found promotional bias for men that is unattributable to seniority, education, or parenting responsibility.15 Such discrimination may be due to the perception of women by employers as primarily responsible for child care and other household responsibilities.16

Women of color are less likely than white women or men to be promoted to higher levels in the corporate pipeline, despite equal or greater career ambition, which contributes to an underrepresentation of women of color in senior or C-suite positions.17 Employers are also less likely to hire mothers compared with women without children and may offer mothers lower pay.18

Sexual harassment

One form of discrimination is sexual harassment, which disproportionately affects women.19 It is defined as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”20 Unfortunately, sexual harassment occurs in almost every industry and occupation.21 Although media accounts of sexual harassment tend to focus on high-profile cases, often involving upper-income white women, sexual harassment is pervasive in low-wage work disproportionately held by women of color, such as in service, hospitality, agricultural, and domestic work.22

A Center for American Progress analysis of unpublished data on sexual harassment charges in the private sector filed with the EEOC found that the federal agency received more than 85,000 charges alleging sexual harassment from fiscal year 2005 to 2015.23 More than one-quarter of these charges were filed in industries with large numbers of low-wage workers and were particularly prevalent in male-dominated occupations.24

In fact, women are most likely to report sexual harassment to the EEOC in industries that are the most male dominated, such as construction, utilities, mining, and transportation and warehousing. 25 Harassment also can be a barrier to entering and staying in these jobs.26

Notably, these numbers are likely underestimates. Studies find that less than one-third of people who have experienced sexual harassment talk about it with a supervisor, and even lower rates file a formal complaint or grievance.27 Survivors’ fear of retaliation, disbelief, blame, and reputational damage, as well as the perception that reporting will not improve the situation, contributes to underreporting. This means the negative effects of discrimination and harassment may be more far-reaching.28

Even women who come forward often feel dissatisfied and frustrated with their employer’s response and may face consequences for reporting sexual harassment; nearly three-quarters of these charges included a charge of retaliation in 2016 and 2017.29 Workplace sexual harassment training, when science-based and supported by firms in their work environments, increases employees’ awareness of sexual harassment policies and understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment, which can improve reporting and prevention.30

Experiences of sexual harassment have negative impacts on women’s job-related outcomes, such as their job satisfaction and the frequency of changing jobs.31 In a survey by the American Association of University Women, 38 percent of respondents said sexual harassment experiences contributed to them leaving their jobs, and 37 percent said it disrupted their career advancement.32 Experiencing sexual harassment also has been found to lower job satisfaction and increase turnover intentions among women lawyers33 and active-duty women in the U.S. military.34

Women faculty in science, engineering, and medicine who experience sexual harassment report having stepped down from leadership opportunities to avoid the perpetrator and even leaving their institution or field entirely.35 In other male-dominated industries that do not require these advanced degrees, rates of sexual harassment are also high, particularly in the construction industry and transportation and utilities industry.36 Sexual harassment also can restrict women’s access to on-the-job learning and advancement opportunities.37 Global comparative studies find similar patterns of sexual harassment’s negative impact on wages, job satisfaction, turnover, and absenteeism.38

LGBTQI+ discrimination and harassment in the workplace

In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County clarified that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects against sex discrimination due to sexual orientation and gender identity.39 Still, half of LGBTQI+ adults report having experienced workplace discrimination or harassment because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or intersex status in the previous year.40

Rates are even higher among transgender people, at 70 percent. Policymakers must ensure the enforcement of federal law so that transgender women and other LGBTQI+ workers are rightfully protected from workplace discrimination and harassment.41

The economic benefits 

Eliminating workplace discrimination and harassment would have profound economic benefits for women and the economy. Addressing discrimination would help close this portion of the wage gap, increasing women’s wages and their economic security; this, in turn, helps women to spend, save, and invest, which can boost economic growth.42 Because a single instance of harassment early in women’s careers can spur short- to medium-term financial stress that can affect their career trajectories in the long run, addressing harassment can help ensure these financial impacts do not occur.43

Ending harassment and proactively responding when it occurs also can help reduce worker turnover and, in doing so, allow women to stay in their chosen jobs while also lowering employer costs associated with hiring and training new workers.44 Indeed, broad negative consequences of discrimination and harassment harm workplaces financially and have economywide effects.45 One estimate finds that losing and replacing employees who leave their jobs due to workplace unfairness—defined in the study as “every-day inappropriate behaviors such as stereotyping, public humiliation and promoting based upon personal characteristics”—costs employers $64 billion annually.46

Official charges of discrimination also are costly to employers. In fact, since 2010, the EEOC finds that employers have “paid out $698.7 million to employees alleging harassment through the Commission’s administrative enforcement pre-litigation process alone.”47 Addressing discrimination and harassment in the workplace will improve the economic security and advancement of women, their families, and the economy as a whole.

The policy recommendations 

Federal and state policymakers must strengthen the enforcement of existing anti-discrimination laws, as well as implement new strategies to combat discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The following are ways that policymakers make the workplace environment safer and more equitable for women, presented first at the nationwide level of federal legislative protections and then as state recommendations that drill down into more specific ways to prevent or remedy sex discrimination and harassment.

Federal policy recommendations 

Federal laws to protect women from discrimination and harassment nationwide are the first actions needed to be taken by policymakers. Specifically, federal policymakers need to:

  • Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act: This bill would strengthen existing equal pay protections, prohibit retaliation against workers who discuss their pay or challenge pay discrimination, and limit employers’ reliance on salary history.48
  • Pass the Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination (BE HEARD) in the Workplace Act: This bill would remove barriers that prevent workers who experience workplace sexual harassment from accessing justice, expand protections to many workers left out of current law, raise the minimum wage for tipped employees, and improve education, outreach, and research efforts.49
  • Increase funding for the EEOC and the OFCCP: More fiscal resources for these two federal agencies would ensure stronger enforcement of federal anti-discrimination and harassment laws.50
  • Reinstate federal pay data collection: Collecting pay data from large employers at the federal level through the EEO-1 form provides enforcement agencies with better data to enforce anti-discrimination laws and encourages employers to self-analyze their pay practices and address pay disparities.51
  • Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment: The Equal Rights Amendment is a proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee equality based on sex or gender under the law. It would give sex discrimination cases explicit constitutional footing.52

State policy recommendations 

State-level policy reforms to combat discrimination and harassment would provide further protections for women in the workplace. Specifically, the following state recommendations include: 

  • Enact worker-led policy changes to address sexual harassment: Workers have led efforts to respond to sexual harassment. Hospitality workers, for example, advocate for legislators to require employers to provide panic buttons.53 Janitorial workers mobilized to push the passage of sexual harassment training for janitorial employees and supervisors.54 And domestic workers are fighting for a bill of rights that includes a special cause of action for workers who face sexual or racial harassment.55 States can collaborate with workers to pass such initiatives into law.56
  • Require workplace anti-harassment and discrimination training: States could require employers to provide routine training on harassment and discrimination to all employees.57
  • Prohibit forced arbitration or pre-dispute nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) as a prerequisite for employment: These two steps would help reduce barriers that discourage workers from reporting harassment.58 In 2022, Washington state passed the Silenced No More Act, one of the most comprehensive restrictions on NDAs in the states. This law prevents employers from mandating or asking employees to sign NDAs regarding conduct such as discrimination and sexual harassment, or any other illegal workplace conduct, and applies to contracts for independent contractors as well as employees.59 Several other states have also passed laws to restrict NDAs.60
  • Invest in state civil enforcement agencies: States could increase funding for agencies that enforce anti-discrimination laws, which would bolster investigations of charges and increase agencies’ ability to monitor employer compliance.61
  • Lower barriers to file discrimination claims: States can empower workers who experience discrimination or harassment by extending the statute of limitations for filing complaints, as well as improve the financial remedies for findings of discrimination.62
  • Support research and public education on sexual harassment: It is important for policymakers to adequately fund research to analyze the prevalence of harassment, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, and other factors, as well as public education campaigns.63


Women have come a long way from being shut out of the labor market yet still face harassment and discrimination that is harmful to them and the economy as a whole. Evidence-driven policy solutions exist that will prevent and combat discrimination and harassment. It is imperative that policymakers take action to create fair and safe workplaces so women can equitably and productively participate in the economy.

The author would like to thank Molly Weston Williamson, Sara Estep, Rose Khattar, Sabrina Talukder, and Amina Khalique for their helpful feedback and assistance.


  1. U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, “Civilian Labor Force by Sex,” available at (last accessed October 2023).
  2. YWCA USA and FINN Partners, “YWomenVote 2022 – Midterm Election Study” (Washington: 2022), available at
  3. Justia, “Employment Discrimination Laws: 50-State Survey,” available at (last accessed October 2023).
  4. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Sex-Based Discrimination,” available at (last accessed October 2023); U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” available at (last accessed October 2023).
  5. Ibid.
  6. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “The Equal Pay Act of 1963,” available at (last accessed October 2023).
  7. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978,” available at (last accessed October 2023); U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act,” available at (last accessed October 2023).
  8. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Overview,” available at (last accessed October 2023); U.S. Department of Labor Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, “About Us,” available at (last accessed October 2023).
  9. Kim Parker and Cary Funk, “Gender discrimination comes in many forms for today’s working women,” Pew Research Center, December 14, 2017, available at
  10. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Charge Statistics (Charges filed with EEOC) FY 1997 Through FY 2022,” available at (last accessed October 2023).
  11. Ibid.
  12. Robin Bleiweis, “Quick Facts About the Gender Wage Gap,” Center for American Progress, March 24, 2020, available at
  13. Joni Hersch, “Sex Discrimination in the Labor Market,” Foundations and Trends in Microeconomics 2 (4) (2006): 281–381, available at; Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, “The Gender Wage Gap: Extent, Trends, And Explanations” (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau Of Economic Research, 2019), available at
  14. Mark Paul, Khaing Zaw, and William Darity, “Returns in the Labor Market: A Nuanced View of Penalties at the Intersection of Race and Gender,” Feminist Economics 28 (2) (2022): 1–31, available at
  15. Lisa A. Kramer and Steph Lambert, “Sex-Linked Bias in Chances of Being Promoted to Supervisor,” Sociological Perspectives 44 (1) (2001): 111–127, available at
  16. Ibid.
  17. McKinsey & Co., “Women in the Workplace 2023” (2023), available at
  18. Christine Siegwarth Meyer, Swati Mukerjee, and Ann Sestero, “Work-Family Benefits: Which Ones Maximize Profits?”, Journal of Managerial Issues 13 (1) (2001): 28–44, available at; Michelle J. Budig and Paula England, “The Wage Penalty for Motherhood,” American Sociological Review 66 (2) (2001): 204–225, available at
  19. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Sex-Based Discrimination”; U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Sexual Harassment in Our Nation’s Workplaces,” available at (last accessed October 2023).
  20. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Sexual Harassment,” available at (last accessed October 2023).
  21. Jocelyn Frye, “Not Just the Rich and Famous: The Pervasiveness of Sexual Harassment Across Industries Affects All Workers,” Center for American Progress, November 20, 2017, available at
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. The Women’s Initiative, “Gender Matters: Women Disproportionately Report Sexual Harassment in Male-Dominated Industries,” Center for American Progress, August 6, 2018, available at
  26. Marina Zhavoronkova and Rose Khattar, “Infrastructure Bill Must Create Pathways for Women To Enter Construction Trades,” Center for American Progress, September 20, 2021, available at
  27. Chai R. Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic, “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace” (Washington: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2016), available at; Lilia M. Cortina and Jennifer L. Berdahl, “Sexual Harassment in Organizations: A Decade of Research in Review,” The Sage Handbook of Organizational Behavior 1 (2008): 469–496, available at
  28. Heather M. Clarke, “Predicting the Decision to Report Sexual Harassment: Organizational Influences and the Theory of Planned Behavior,” Journal of Organizational Psychology 14 (2) (2014), available at; Lilia M. Cortina and Maira A. Areguin, “Putting People Down and Pushing Them Out: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace,” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 8 (1) (2021): 285–309, available at
  29. Heather McLaughlin, Christopher Uggen, and Amy Blackstone, “The Economic and Career Effects of Sexual Harassment on Working Women” Gender & Society 31 (3) (2017): 333–358, available at; Frye, “Not Just the Rich and Famous.”
  30. Mark V. Roehling and Jason Huang, “Sexual harassment training effectiveness: An interdisciplinary review and call for research,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 39 (2) (2018): 134–150, available at; Shawn Meghan Burn, “The Psychology of Sexual Harassment,” Teaching of Psychology 46 (1) (2019): 96–103, available at
  31. Elyse Shaw, Ariane Hegewisch, and Cynthia Hess, “Harassment and Assault at Work: Understanding the Costs” (Washington: Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2018), available at; Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University, “Economic Impacts of Sexual Harassment: Combating Sexual Harassment Can Further Gender Equality,” (Piscataway, NJ: 2020), available at; Darius K-S Chan and more, “Examining The Job-Related, Psychological, and Physical Outcomes of Workplace Sexual Harassment: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 32 (4) (2008): 362–376, available at
  32. American Association of University Women, “Limiting Our Livelihoods: The Cumulative Impact of Sexual Harassment on Women’s Careers” (Washington: 2019), available at
  33. David N. Laband and Bernard F. Lentz, “The Effects of Sexual Harassment on Job Satisfaction, Earnings, and Turnover Among Female Lawyers,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 51 (4) (1998): 594–607, available at
  34. Heather Antecol and Deborah A. Cobb-Clark, “The Sexual Harassment of Female Active-Duty Personnel: Effects on Job Satisfaction and Intentions to Remain in the Military” (Bonn, Germany: Institute for the Study of Labor, 2001), available at
  35. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (Washington: The National Academies Press, 2018), available at
  36. Joni Hersch, “Sexual harassment in the workplace” (Bonn, Germany: Institute for the Study of Labor, 2015), available at
  37. Shaw, Hegewisch, and Hess, “Harassment and Assault at Work.”
  38. Rebecca S. Merkin and Muhammad Kamal Shah, “The impact of sexual harassment on job satisfaction, turnover intentions, and absenteeism: findings from Pakistan compared to the United States,” SpringerPlus (2014), available at; Giulia Zacchia and Izaskun Zuazu, “The Wage Effect of Workplace Sexual Harassment: Evidence for Women in Europe” (New York: Institute for New Economic Thinking, 2023), available at; Olle Folke and Johanna Rickne, “Sexual Harassment and Gender Inequality in the Labor Market,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 137 (4) (2022): 2163–2212, available at
  39. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Protections Against Employment Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity,” available at (last accessed October 2023).
  40. Caroline Medina and Lindsay Mahowald, “Discrimination and Barriers to Well-Being: The State of the LGBTQI+ Community in 2022” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2023), available at
  41. Ibid.
  42. Sarah Jane Glynn, “Gender wage inequality” (Washington: Washington Center for Equitable Growth, 2018), available at
  43. McLaughlin, Uggen, and Blackstone, “The Economic and Career Effects of Sexual Harassment on Working Women.”  
  44. Crystal Weise, “The Business Case for Good Jobs” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2023), available at
  45. Jana L. Raver and Michele J. Gelfand, “Beyond the Individual Victim: Linking Sexual Harassment, Team Processes, and Team Performance,” The Academy of Management Journal 48 (3) (2005): 387–400, available at; Feldblum and Lipnic, “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.”
  46. Level Playing Field Institute, “The Cost of Employee Turnover Due Solely to Unfairness in the Workplace” (San Francisco: 2007), available at
  47. Feldblum and Lipnic, “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.”
  48. Paycheck Fairness Act, S.728, 118th Cong., 1st sess. (July 18, 2023), available at; Robin Bleiwis, “$546 Billion and Counting: Senate Inaction on Paycheck Fairness Continues to Shortchange Women,” Center for American Progress, March 26, 2020, available at
  49. BE HEARD in the Workplace Act, H.R.5994, 117th Cong., 2nd sess. (November 1, 2022), available at; The Women’s Initiative, “Navigating the Road Ahead in the Fight for Women’s Progress,” Center for American Progress, June 30, 2021, available at; Jocelyn Frye and others, “Transforming the Culture of Power: An Examination of Gender-Based Violence in the United States” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2019), available at
  50. Jocelyn Frye, “10 Essential Actions To Promote Equal Pay” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2021), available at
  51. Isabela Salas-Betsch and Lauren Hoffman, “Why Federal Pay Data Collection Is Critical to Equity,” Center for American Progress, July 18, 2023, available at; The Women’s Initiative, “Gender Matters.”
  52. Becca Damante, “The Senate Must Recognize the ERA to Protect Survivors of Gender-Based Violence,” Magazine, April 25, 2023, available at; Robin Bleiweis, “The Equal Rights Amendment: What You Need To Know” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2020), available at
  53. Diana Boesch, Jocelyn Frye, and Kaitlin Holmes, “Driving Change in States to Combat Sexual Harassment” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2019), available at
  54. Ibid.
  55. Ibid.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Ibid.
  58. Ibid.
  59. Washington H.B. 1795, 67th Legislature, 2022 Regular sess. (March 24, 2022), available at; Guy Brenner, “Washington Passes ‘Silenced No More Act’ Limiting Nondisclosure and Nondisparagement Provisions In Employment And Independent Contractor Agreements,” National Law Review, March 29, 2022, available at
  60. Leah Shepherd, “New State Laws Restrict Nondisclosure and Nondisparagement Agreements,” Society for Human Resource Management, August 31, 2022, available at
  61. Ibid.
  62. Ibid.
  63. Ibid.

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Isabela Salas-Betsch

Research Associate, Women’s Initiative


Women’s Initiative

The Women’s Initiative develops robust, progressive policies and solutions to ensure all women can participate in the economy and live healthy, productive lives.

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