Analysis: The depressing truth about sexual harassment in America

FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2016 file photo, producer Harvey Weinstein participates in the "War and Peace" panel at the A&E 2016 Winter TCA in Pasadena, Calif. Weinstein has been fired from The Weinstein Co., effective immediately, following new information revealed regarding his conduct, the company's board of directors announced Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

Seven years ago, before she covered politics for The Guardian, Sabrina Siddiqui was just breaking into the world of Washington journalism and sought a veteran reporter's guidance.

They met for lunch, where he dispensed advice — but later, he started sending her messages about how "sexy" she looked.

"I didn't know what to do," Siddiqui said in an interview. "At that time, I was only 24. I was young. I was scared. I didn't want to take on someone senior to me."

Four in 10 women have stories like this, according to a recent study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Four in 10 women report enduring unwanted advances in a work environment, which could include a come-on, a gendered insult and sexual assault.

But only a tiny fraction — between 6 and 13 percent — ever lodge a formal complaint, the EEOC found. Less than a third tell their bosses or human resources.

They often don't want to seem dramatic. They're nervous people won't believe them. They fear being judged or barred from opportunities or fired. They choose to brush it away, though harassment is linked to depression and anxiety — forces that can steer a promising career into paralysis.

Even A-listers have opted to keep quiet. Take Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Ashley Judd — all actresses that started in Hollywood with money and family connections and still waited years to speak out against Harvey Weinstein.

"That primarily has to do with fear," said Lilia Cortina, a psychology professor and sexual harassment researcher at the University of Michigan. "There's fear of retaliation. Fear of being a troublemaker. Fear of the reporting process."

Siddiqui feared the man's power. He'd been in the industry much longer and seemed to know everyone. He also happened to be married.

She wasn't interested in flirting back. Laughing it off felt like the only option.

"What are going to be the ramifications of challenging someone?" she said. "When you lack the authority in the eyes of society to do so and you know a lot more people who will rise to his defense?"

After months of direct messages on Twitter, Siddiqui confided in her friends, who made her feel more comfortable about cutting the man off. She told him his actions were inappropriate. He told her he'd been joking, and then he deleted their conversation history.

"That was also why I felt like I couldn't speak out," she said. "It would be his word against mine."

Sexual harassment remains a huge problem in the workplace today, although the public is less tolerant of inappropriate (and sometimes criminal) actions than they were 25 years ago, said Cortina, the sexual harassment researcher. Men filed about a tenth of last years' complaints.

In 1992, the earliest year of government data available, the EEOC received 5,607 sexual harassment complaints — nearly all of them from women. The number jumped to 8,927 in 1996 and 9,456 in 2000.

Gradually, Cortina said, people began to realize the behaviors some once saw as socially acceptable — making a suggestive remark, pinching a colleagues' rear, offering an opportunity in exchange for bedroom favors — were predatory. And the complaints grew every year through 2010, when there were 12,695.

Then movement slid to a halt. The average number of annual complaints filed between 2010 and 2016 held steady at 12,526, with most coming from women. Government researchers say they don't know why the reports have remained practically the same for the last seven years.

"There was a point in time when they were going up, and women and other people were more willing to come forward," said Chai Feldblum, one of the EEOC's four commissioners. To analysts, that suggested taking action was becoming less intimidating.

What's troubling now about reports, Feldblum said: "Over the last five years, they have not gone down."

Despite heightened awareness about sexual harassment, she said, there's no evidence the problem is shrinking or that women feel more confident about reporting harassers.

The EEOC does not release sexual harassment data by industry, but researchers emphasize the behavior extends beyond Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Wall Street.

"It cuts across all industries," Feldblum said. "It cuts across all income levels. All races, ages, and sexual orientations. It is really quite horrific how persuasive and persistent sex-based harassment is."

In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that companies must distribute an anti-harassment policy that clearly defines how workers can report predatory actions. Workplaces must also investigate every claim, regardless of a manager's opinion of the person stepping forward.

Anna Kirkland, director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, said companies nationwide adopted policies to comply with the law. But almost 20 years later, there's no sign they're actually working.

"A company can get almost entirely shielded from liability by having responded in some 'reasonable' way, and the courts have construed that as a really low bar," Kirkland said. "Management just has to show they did something or have some internal policy. It doesn't have to be terribly effective."

In some cases, company policies can do more harm than good. Kim Elsesser, a research scholar at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, found in a 2006 study that workplace training made men more reluctant to work alone with women. That could stifle valuable professional relationships and career progression for women, she noted, especially because the majority of executives and politicians in the United States are men.

A better strategy than just telling people what not to do is having team-building exercises that encourage empathy, said therapist Moshe Rozdzial, co-chair of the National Organization for Men Against Sexism.

"I think most men are clueless about their privilege and entitlement and how it translates into harassing or misogynistic behavior around women, especially women they are attracted to or interested in," he said. "Only an awareness of the impact that women experience at the hands of men would actually give men the appropriate anxiety and consciousness vis-à-vis their behavior around women."

Curtis Graves, a lawyer at the Employers Council in Denver, said executives need to set the tone at their companies — or risk implicitly condoning bad behavior and lawsuits down the road.

"We represent about 4,000 companies, and we hammer this home on a daily basis," he said. "There are places out there that it might as well be 1940 still."

Letting employees get away with harassment can wind up being costly.

In 2015, researchers at the Harvard Business School calculated that "toxic workers" — those prone to harmful behavior, such as sexual harassment — hurt a firm's bottom line by at least $12,500 in turnover costs, even if they are considered star performers. And that figure doesn't include any damages paid to victims.

"Research demonstrates the toxic cost of keeping that 'high-value' person in place way outweighs the cost of getting rid of that person," said Feldblum, the EEOC official.