Although the gender pay gap has narrowed over the last several decades, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to close the gap completely. It’s estimated that women still earn approximately 80% of what men do, and the gap is even wider for women of color. This means every year, women are earning more than $10,000 less than men solely because of their gender.

In the past, many people blamed the gender pay gap on women’s responsibilities at home or educational opportunities. But now, researchers at Vanderbilt University and Harvard University have found that the actual cause of the gender pay gap could be sexual harassment in the workplace.

Why Women Hesitate to Pursue Lucrative Opportunities

Lawmakers and equal rights advocates often encourage women to pursue more lucrative job opportunities to level the playing field between women and men. This may seem like an effective solution to the gender pay gap issue, but there’s a reason why many women have not taken this advice. As many of the recent sexual harassment stories in the news reveal, women often experience intense and frequent sexual harassment when they are in high-paying jobs. Other women feel as if they will never be able to advance to the high-paying positions without having to endure repeated sexual harassment by their male superiors. For these reasons, it’s possible that the fear of sexual harassment is holding women back from reaching their full potential in the workplace.

Sexually Harassed Women Are More Likely to Leave Their Jobs

Sexual harassment can take a major toll on victims. Some victims suffer emotionally for years following the harassment and others are never quite the same. Because of this, it’s not hard to understand why women who are sexually harassed are six times more likely to leave their jobs than women who have not been harassed. In fact, one study that analyzed the long-term effects of sexual harassment found that about 80% of female victims left their jobs within two years after being harassed.

When women are forced to leave their jobs because of sexual harassment, they miss out on opportunities to advance within the company and earn a higher income. Many women who leave their jobs end up in settling for other jobs that do not offer as much pay, which means these women are forced to start back at square one. Some women who have financially stable partners decide to quit working altogether and focus their time and energy on their family instead.

Women Feel Safer in Lower-Paying Industries

The fear of being sexually harassed can also prevent women from pursuing opportunities in certain industries that are dominated by men. Instead of having to work in an intimidating or uncomfortable environment, many women choose to stick to “safer” industries that are dominated by women. Unfortunately, a lot of the jobs in female-dominated industries pay far less than what is offered in male-dominated industries.

Women Must Tolerate Harassment in Exchange For “Hazard Pay”

Employers typically pay higher wages to employees who are working in dangerous work environments. This is known as “hazard pay,” since it is basically compensation awarded to employees who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way in order to do a job.

However, researchers recently discovered that employees who work in physically dangerous conditions are not the only ones who are being awarded hazard pay. Researchers analyzed data provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and found that companies facing allegations of sexual harassment paid female employees higher wages than companies not facing allegations. On average, women were paid an additional 25 cents per hour. Since the current wage gap is estimated to be about 20 cents, this means women who work at these companies are basically being paid equal wages in exchange in for tolerating sexual harassment.

Harassers Often Have the Power to Control Pay

End-of-the-year bonuses and raises are often calculated based on an employee’s annual performance review. This is a fair way to determine whether or not an employee should be rewarded with higher pay, and if so, how much their pay should increase. But unfortunately, many women are forced to have their performance reviewed and their pay decided by their manager who also happens to be their harasser. The manager may offer to increase the employee’s pay or give them a bigger bonus in exchange for a sexual favor. Managers in this position can also reward employees who tolerate repeated sexual harassment and punish employees who report or object to harassment. This problem can only be resolved when men and women have equal economic power within the company.

What Can Be Done to Close the Pay Gap

If sexual harassment plays a role in the widening of the gender pay gap, the best way to close the gap is to hold harassers accountable for their behavior. Employers have a legal obligation to put a stop to sexual harassment as soon as they are notified about it, but many of them fail to do so. If your employer does not take allegations of sexual harassment seriously, don’t be afraid to speak to an attorney to discuss your legal options. Sexual harassment is grossly underreported, so many men think there are no consequences for engaging in this inappropriate and illegal behavior. If more women become brave enough to report sexual harassment, these harassers can finally be held accountable, which could eventually narrow the gender pay gap.

Have you been sexually harassed in the workplace? If so, it’s important to get in touch with an attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case. The experienced employment law attorneys at Shegerian & Associates are ready to seek justice against your employer. Don’t delay any longer—contact us today by calling 1-800-GOT-FIRED.