SPECIAL REPORT Although the federal government’s role in suing construction companies over sexual harassment has fallen steadily over the last decade, federal and local complaints linked to similar harassment of male employees have remained consistent and higher than that for all industries.
Between 20% and 25% of complaints brought against construction companies over the past 10 years by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission involve a harassment claim by a man, according to data provided to ENR (see interactive graphic below).
It is not clear whether on-the-job sexual harassment has declined as companies became aware of the problem and the risks, or whether the complaints and civil lawsuits are now being handled mainly by private attorneys hired by the victims, which would not appear in EEOC statistics.
What is clear is that anti-sexual harassment measures serve as a refuge for men to a greater degree than anyone could have anticipated.
As usual, the legal definition of sexual harassment—usually phrased as a hostile work environment—remains in flux.
Earlier this month, EEOC lost a key court decision involving a male victim in the construction industry when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that what ironworker Kerry Woods experienced from his supervisor at Boh Bros. Construction Co. while working on a Louisiana bridge project did not qualify as “sexual harassment” or “sex discrimination.”
Woods, represented by the agency, won a $301,000 award last year from a federal jury after he complained about constant sexually phrased taunts impugning his masculinity during work on the span in 2006.
Gregory Juge, the EEOC official responsible for pressing the case on Woods’ behalf, declined to comment on the verdict or whether the agency would seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Awareness of sexual harassment has grown dramatically since the early 1970s, when issues related to women’s rights became part of the national conversation. Male-dominated construction jobsites have posed a particular challenge, with female craft workers in the past enduring the full range of verbal and physical abuse. Partly as a result, women represent a small percentage of construction craft labor—a level that has hardly budged despite efforts to attract women to the field through union and open-shop apprenticeship training programs and a crackdown by management against abusive employees.
But one labor attorney says he believes the drop-off in EEOC complaints is misleading and that the number of cases he sees has remained constant in the last decade.
Michael Hoare, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represented former J.A. Jones/Tompkins Builders Inc. executive Sandra Fowler in her successful sexual harassment suit against the firm in 2006, says the numbers do not reflect what he sees in lawsuits within all industries. “[The rate of sexual harassment suits] seems to be steady and we keep expecting it to fall off, but there's no diminution,” he says.
Hoare is also surprised at the rise of sexual harassment suits brought by men. “At one point we never heard of them,” he says, but such cases now represent 10% of his office's work.
EEOC sexual harassment complaints for all industries have tailed off in the last decade, but the drop is more dramatic in construction: 345 construction industry complaints in 2002 fell to 99 in 2011, a 70% decrease. The proportion of complaints in the construction industry filed by men—19% in 2011, 27% the year before—is higher than the proportion filed by men in all sectors combined, which was only 16% last year.
EEOC spokesman James Ryan says that the commission's policy prevents him from speculating on causes for the decline of sexual harassment complaints.