The four types of high-harassment workplaces

Researchers have found there are four types of work environments where sexual and gender-based harassment is most common.

Workplaces where most of the workers are men

These are sometimes called “majority-male” workplaces or “male-dominant” workplaces. And there are a lot of them, especially in industries like science and technology, construction and the trades, transportation and warehousing, mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction, fisheries and forestry, and policing and the military. In these workplaces, the harassment is most likely to be what experts call “hostility based.” That means that some people think you don’t belong in their workplace or industry and are harassing you to force you out.

Workplaces where most of the clients or customers are men

This is true in much of the hospitality industry (bartending, serving, hosting). It’s true for sex work. It’s true for some kinds of health-care and personal support work (PSW, nanny, cleaner, personal assistant), and for many jobs in sales, consulting, and business services. In this kind of work, the harassment is most likely to be what experts call “desire based,” which means that some people feel like it’s okay for them to behave in sexual ways with you, even if you don’t want them to.

Workplaces where most people are white (if you’re not)

For racialized people, it can be hard to know whether you’re being harassed for reasons related to your sex or gender, or because of your race. Often it’s both. If you’re racialized, a majority-white workplace could be a high-harassment environment for you. This kind of harassment can be either hostility based or desire based, or a mix of both.

Workplaces where most people aren’t 2SLGBTQIA+ (if you are)

If you’re 2SLGBTQIA+, a high-harassment environment for you is any workplace where 2SLGBTQIA+ people make up just a tiny minority, or don’t seem present at all. This is especially true for you if you’re trans, and/or if people perceive you as anything other than male. This kind of harassment is usually hostility based. Some people are offended by your presence (or even your existence), and so they want to force you out, or force you to behave in a way they approve of.

What leads people to change their careers

If you’re being harassed at a workplace like the ones described above, and you’re trying to decide whether to change your whole career as a result, the first thing you need to know is that you’re not alone. What you’re experiencing is very, very common.

It’s pretty simple.

If someone’s getting harassed at work and can’t find a way to make it stop, they will usually consider quitting their job. If they think they’re just as likely to be harassed at their next job, that’s when people start considering a bigger change.

  • They want to be able to relax at work, rather than needing to always be on guard and suspicious.
  • They want to be physically and emotionally safe.
  • They want to be able to focus on their work, instead of being distracted by harassment.
  • They want to be around people they like and can be friendly with—or at least, to avoid people who are hostile or predatory.
  • They want to be treated with a basic level of respect.
  • They want their work to be judged on the basis of their actual performance.
  • They want normal opportunities to advance at work. To be praised, promoted, and make more money.
  • They want to be able to be themselves at work, rather than needing to hide or change parts of themselves to avoid harassment.

Here are some real-life stories of people who changed their careers to get away from harassment. Some of them we talked with ourselves, and some are from books or news articles. A lot of examples:

  • A female software engineer was sexually harassed for more than 10 years while working at big tech companies. She quit the industry and went to work in the non-profit sector.
  • A female welder was harassed on her first day on the job, and every day after that. After two years she quit, and now she makes glass art.
  • A nonbinary person held a bunch of different jobs for about a decade and was harassed at all of them. Today, they are self-employed and working alone, doing bicycle repair.
  • After she transitioned, an auditor at a big accounting firm started getting harassed a lot by her co-workers. She quit and took a job bookkeeping at a 2SLGBTQIA+ hotel.
  • A First Nation woman became a city councillor and then resigned because the job exposed her to so much racism and sexism. Today she’s an Indigenous advocate and artist.

How to decide if changing your career is right for you

It’s actually a pretty simple trade-off.

The research says that people who change their career to get out of high-harassment environments end up happier but poorer. It’s that simple.

  • They’re happier because they feel like they can be themselves at work, and they end up working with people they like a lot better than their previous co-workers.
  • They’re poorer because they often go through a period of being unemployed or underemployed, because sometimes they need to spend money to retrain for their new career, and because their new career pays less. (We explain more about that a little further down in this article.)

So it’s a pretty simple question. Can you afford to make less money in exchange for more happiness?

(Okay, it’s not actually 100% that simple. If you’re working in a low-paid job right now, it’s definitely possible to go back to school and get training and end up making more money in the end. That absolutely happens; it’s not even uncommon. But if you want more money and less harassment, that isn’t always easy to get.)

How to get started changing your career

The first and most important thing you need to know is don’t wait too long.

If you think you might want to change your career, get started early. It’s going to take a lot of planning and a lot of effort, and meanwhile every day you spend in a harassment-heavy industry is going to cost you—emotionally, and maybe even physically.

So you are going to want to start now.

Here are some things to think about:

Trust your own instincts

We want to encourage you to trust your own instincts. If you think it’s right to leave, you are correct. We’re saying this because other people—your friends, your family, professional contacts—may encourage you to stay. If they do, you can ignore them. They’re not in your shoes and they don’t know what you’re experiencing. We urge you to trust yourself. You are the expert on you.

High-harassment industries pay more than low-harassment ones.

This is an important piece of information that a lot of people don’t know. Economists call it a wage premium, and it’s why practically everyone who switches their career to get away from harassment ends up making less money. If you’re considering a change, you need to know this. You should try to save as much money as much as you can now, before you quit. It’s also a good idea to start cutting back your expenses.

Consider independent contractor or consultant work

This is something a lot of people do. But researchers say that, for many people, this turns out to just be a stage that they pass through. Most people, five or so years later, are doing something completely different than what they were doing when they first got harassed.

Unemployment or underemployment is normal

A lot of people, once they quit a high-harassment industry, stumble around for a while before they figure out what they really want to do. It’s normal for people to be unemployed or underemployed for a year or two, or even more. This could easily happen to you. It’s another argument for saving money and doing a lot of planning before you quit.

High-harassment industries have higher status

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: The kinds of careers in which you’re likely to be harassed have higher status than harassment-free environments. Ugh, but it’s true. You might want to think about how much you—and your family and friends—care about status. If you care a lot, that might make your decisions harder.

Wanting to work alone is common

When people leave a high-harassment environment, it’s normal for them to go through a period where they don’t want to work with other people at all. Wanting to work alone, experts say, is a pretty common part of the healing process, and will probably naturally come to an end. If you find yourself wanting to work alone for a while, that’s normal, and it’s nothing to worry about.

Retraining is worth considering

Lots of people end up retraining for a new field. It’s worth thinking about whether you want to go back to school. Is there a particular field that’s always interested you? If you got some new skills, would that qualify you for work you might enjoy? You might feel like you’re too old to go back to school, or it would be too expensive. But if it puts you in a position where you’ll enjoy your work more, it’s definitely worth considering.

You might be happiest working with people like you

Researchers say that the people who end up healthiest and happiest after a career change are often those who move into an industry or field where they can work with people more like themselves. (Like, a trans woman working with other trans people, or a First Nation woman working with other Indigenous people.) If this is something you’re considering, it’s a really good idea to start building your network of people like you. Find out where they work and what they do. Ask if they like it. Ask how they got into it. Ask if there are any job openings.