"Was asked to join in threesome with boss and his deputy"...

"Told to sit on my boss's lap if I wanted my Christmas bonus"...

"Heard partners assessing female candidates according to their attractiveness" ...

"Told to get an abortion or resign as two pregnant workers was unfair".

Gender inequality in the workplace is an invisible and endemic problem, as the briefest glance at these and thousands of other entries to the Everyday Sexism Project will reveal. It is varied in its manifestation, from discrimination at interview stage ("I was asked in a job interview if I planned to have children in the next three years and told that if I did I wouldn't be hired"), to outright sexual assault ("There will be at least three shifts a week at work where I am spanked, grabbed, groped or stroked").

It is a problem that we often approach from the point of view of the victim, and indeed the impact can be immense – a recent study by law firm Slater and Gordon found that one in eight women had left a job as a result of harassment, and research by the Equal Opportunities Commission suggested that around 30,000 women per year in the UK lose their jobs as a result of maternity discrimination.

But it is worth making the point that these issues can also be damaging to employers, meaning that it is in everybody's interest to tackle them. An employee who is suffering harassment or discrimination is not a happy or productive employee, and that in turn is not good for business.

One of the major problems with workplace harassment is that it can be very well hidden, making it invisible to all but the victim and perpetrator. Under such circumstances, victims often feel unable to come forward and report what is happening; either because they fear not being believed, or, in many cases, because the perpetrator is a senior colleague in a position of power, and may have control over their career.

Rocking the boat

For many women, the risk of "rocking the boat" or being labelled a "troublemaker" feels too great to chance, especially in a difficult economic climate. And victims have good reason to be cautious – disclosures are not always dealt with positively and many of these fears are grounded in real precedents.

Take, for example, the woman who reported harassment to her HR department, only to be told: "You're young and pretty, what do you expect?" Or the employee who wrote, in another Everyday Sexism Project entry: "Saw my hours cut every time I complained to a manager about the co-worker who sexually harassed me." And for male victims, the stigma around coming forward and the perceived risk of ridicule can also create a major barrier to reporting.

With the normalisation of sexism meaning that perpetrators often go unchallenged, it is commonplace for victims to exchange advice about co-workers best avoided or wandering hands to watch out for. Indeed, the same Slater and Gordon research revealed that nearly half of the women polled had been warned to expect inappropriate behaviour from a certain colleague.

Another Everyday Sexism entry came from a woman who described how her boss had such a well-known habit of putting his arm around female employees' shoulders and casually groping their breasts that she and her colleagues developed a routine "sidestep manoeuvre" to escape.

As the problem is pushed further underground, many victims understandably respond to workplace sexual harassment by adopting coping mechanisms, from avoiding a particular colleague to switching team or department.

Some become less proactive, deliberately drawing less attention to themselves – perhaps skipping certain meetings or putting forward fewer ideas. It isn't difficult to see how such responses might have a negative impact on workplace performance. And for many victims, harassment can be so severe it results in time off work.

Of course, the problem doesn't end with overt harassment – one recent study suggested that subtly ingrained gender bias may also impact on women's career opportunities, salaries and professional development. Any form of discrimination, whether subconscious or deliberate, is likely to have a negative impact on a company because it inevitably narrows the pool from which suitable candidates can be drawn and prevents selection from taking place purely on the basis of merit.

The same is true of pregnancy discrimination, which has the very real capacity to strip the workforce of some of its best and brightest employees. And, as we know from McKinsey's research into top-team diversity, a lack of diverse representation is bad news, not just for women, but for company performance too.

Misconceptions

When discussing the negative impact of workplace gender inequality on businesses, there is a common misconception that it is women bringing tribunals who are bad for business, or victims who speak up who are to blame.

On the contrary, the problem is the person doing the harassing or discriminating in the first place. Suppressing employees' rights to complain about such issues is counter-productive, likely as it is to lead to frustration, resentment and low morale. So encouraging disclosures and having an effective and transparent, victim-centred complaints procedure is vital.

But the best solution of all for both businesses and victims would be to prevent these problems from happening in the first place. Companies should take the time to engage employees on the issue of sexism, harassment and discrimination, put effective reporting mechanisms in place and support those who come forward. It's not only the right thing to do, it just might also be very good for business.

Laura Bates is the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which has collated over 80,000 women's stories of harassment and discrimination at work and in everyday life. She is also a prolific writer and the recipient of several awards. Follow Laura on Twitter here.