A solid majority of Americans now say that sexual harassment in the workplace is a "serious problem" in the United States, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll — marking a significant increase that has coincided with a period when several high-profile harassment and assault scandals have unfolded.
In a 2011 Post-ABC poll, 47 percent of Americans said they felt that sexual harassment in the workplace was a serious problem. That number has now risen to 64 percent. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say men who sexually harass female co-workers usually get away with it.
The new poll was conducted in the days after a sexual abuse controversy surrounding Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein made national headlines. More than 20 women — including Oscar winners like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow as well as little-known aspiring actresses and low-level assistants — shared their accounts following investigative reports by the New York Times and the New Yorker. But recent years have also seen similar allegations effectively end the careers of comedian Bill Cosby, Fox News chief executive Roger Ailes and Fox anchor Bill O’Reilly. Several women also accused then-candidate Donald Trump of unwanted groping last year.
The Post-ABC survey shows that plenty of women identify with the accusers in these cases. One-third of women say that they had experienced sexual advances from a male co-worker or a man who had influence over their job, and one-third of this group of women say their male co-workers' behavior constituted sexual abuse.
The trend shows little sign of fading with younger generations, with 41 percent of employed women under age 40 saying they’ve received unwanted sexual advances from male co-workers, compared with 25 percent of employed women ages 40 and older.
About 8 in 10 women who experienced unwanted advances involving work considered it sexual harassment, while over 3 in 10 considered it sexual abuse.
When asked about unwanted sexual advances they deemed inappropriate either inside or outside their workplace, the number leaps to a 54 percent majority of women who say it’s happened to them, the poll shows.
The level of workplace harassment found in the poll is roughly in line with numbers reported in previous studies, according to Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, a Washington-based advocacy group. She noted that certain fields — such as construction, policing and the restaurant industry — have typically shown higher rates.
The Post-ABC poll found that 42 percent of women who had experienced harassment say they had reported such incidents to supervisors. Still, nearly 6 in 10, or 58 percent of the women, said they didn’t notify anyone in a supervisory position at their job.
“There’s a range of reasons why people don’t report. One big one is that retaliation often accompanies harassment,” Goss Graves said. “People who come forward risk isolation and shaming, and they risk short- or long-term damage to their careers.”
The steep rise in the number of Americans concerned about the issue is fueled particularly by younger adults and women with college degrees, the survey shows. The share of female college graduates saying sexual harassment is a serious problem grew from 47 percent in 2011 to 76 percent in the latest survey.
Social media has added a dimension to the public discussion of harassment. In April, after it was revealed that Fox had reached settlements with several female employees who said O'Reilly had harassed them, a #droporeilly campaign emerged on Twitter. After a leaked tape captured Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, other women who had endured abuse shared their own stories on social media, tagged their posts with #notokay.
On Sunday, actress Alyssa Milano took to Twitter to encourage women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted to identity themselves with just two words: “Me too.” Within hours, hundreds of thousands of social-media users had done just that.
Goss Graves said campaigns like these “have raised tremendous awareness around notions of consent, around harassment, around being an effective bystander.” She added, “There has been a renewed understanding of the way in which harassment takes place.”
But the Post-ABC poll shows that most don't hold much hope that victims will find justice. A 65 percent majority of Americans, and over three-quarters of women, say men typically get away with sexually harassing women in the workplace. And among women who say they've experienced unwelcome sexual advances on the job, a whopping 94 percent say men usually avoid facing any consequences for their actions.
Of the women who have faced harassment or abuse at work, 52 percent say they were left feeling humiliated. A larger 64 percent said they were intimidated, and 31 percent said they felt ashamed. But the strongest majority — 83 percent — said their experiences made them angry.
That emotion was echoed by many of those leveling accusations against Weinstein.
"We're at a point in time when women need to send a clear message that this is over," Paltrow told the Times, after describing Weinstein's advances on her more than two decades ago. "This way of treating women ends now."
Concern about sexual harassment is yet another issue where partisans are growing farther apart. While 79 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of independents say harassment is a serious problem — both rising over 20 points in the last six years — this number falls to 42 percent among Republicans, little changed over that same period.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted Oct. 11-15 among a random national sample of 1,260 adults reached on both conventional and cellular phones. The survey included an oversample of women resulting in 740 interviews, with the final sample weighted to the share of men and women in the U.S. adult population. The results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 points for the full sample and four points among women.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the poll was conducted Oct. 12-16. The story has been updated.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.