Workplace Sexual Harassment — not just a Hollywood problem -Marnie Dobson Zimmerman, PhD
“Working on Empty” (WOE) is a multimedia project on how the U.S. workplace is making Americans sick and what must change to protect the health of our workforce.
While Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein dominated the headlines recently with sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations by more than a dozen women including high-profile actresses, he has been joined by a steady stream of powerful men exposed by more than one person. The growing list includes the late Fox producer Roger Ailes, the conservative media tyrant Bill O’Reilly, and recently, Senatorial candidate Roy Moore, actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K., Senator Al Franken, CBS anchor Charlie Rose, and NBC’s Today show anchor Matt Lauer. It appears that this kind of predatory abuse of power crosses the political spectrum and a variety of professions. Perhaps fueled by the Trump-Era backlash, where groping women’s private parts can land you the Presidency, these high-profile cases have brought an enormous amount of media attention, shock and outrage. But these are just the tip of an ugly, ongoing iceberg of sexism in the workplace that has impacted the lives and careers of many women and some men, from all walks of life.
Sexual harassment is a work stressor that has a profoundly negative effect on the health and wellbeing of women workers who often can do little to escape it — it can lead to depression and even high blood pressure.
In June 2017, The New York Times published the story ‘Women in Tech Speak Frankly on Culture of Harassment’ including stories from more than two dozen women in the technology start-up industry who took the risk and talked about being sexually harassed. Ten named the investors involved, describing how they lost investment opportunities after rebuffing investor’s sexual advances, or were told not to say anything because they might be ostracized. This story followed on the heels of female software engineers describing a culture of harassment at Uber. This kind of predatory behavior is pervasive in the male-dominated tech industry just as it is in Hollywood.
Generally, most workplaces and industries overwhelmingly perpetuate a culture that privileges men, particularly white men, over women and minorities. The gender imbalance in the tech industry reflects a power imbalance making possible a “bro culture,” which in turn fosters sexual harassment in the workplace. Women in these workplaces often feel powerless to reject the advances of powerful men and/or are afraid to report incidents, because they rely on these men for jobs, promotion and investment. Another consequence is that women earn a fraction of what their male counterparts earn in similar job positions and industries. There are still far fewer women entrepreneurs and CEOs than men. And perhaps most importantly, women-dominated occupations — particularly those dominated by minority women — are some of the lowest paid jobs in America, with the lowest job security, the least power and the greatest sexual harassment.
While reporting may have recently started increasing in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, sexual harassment has affected and continues to affect women with even less power and resources, including women in the military. It can particularly affect those women in low-wage, informal sectors of the economy who are in non-standard employment situations, with few or no resources for reporting harassment (e.g. they work for small businesses without HR departments and policies or they work in private homes), and who do not have the economic security to find another job. They are also exposed to other noxious psychosocial hazards in the workplace including bullying/abuse, racial discrimination and lack of job control. Immigrant farm workers, domestic workers, waitresses in hospitality, and hotel housekeepers, among others, face sexual harassment and sexual assault which continues unreported and negatively affect women’s lives and health. Sexual harassment is a work stressor that has a profoundly negative effect on the health and wellbeing of women workers who often can do little to escape it — it can lead to depression and even high blood pressure.
This is not a new story.
Sexual harassment of women can be traced back to the violation of slaves and domestic servants; often these women were blamed for being “promiscuous by nature” or for not fighting off their attackers. Sexual harassment is considered a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1991, after Anita Hill testified against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas for sexually harassing her in the workplace, that same year the Civil Rights Act was amended to allow victims to elect a jury trial to seek compensatory damages, and the number of sexual harassment cases rose from 6,127 in 1991 to 15,342 in 1996. But despite these legislative efforts and required sexual harassment training in many large corporations and organizations, the cases of sexual harassment — especially those involving a “hostile work environment” continue to occur and are under-reported. Women are afraid they will be considered “trouble-makers” or will be fired. For waitresses, hotel housekeepers, and domestic workers, the situation is compounded by economic insecurity.
Sexual harassment, like sexual assault, occurs mostly to women, is perpetrated mostly by men with power, and it crosses race and class lines. A 2011 poll reported that “at least one quarter of all women have experienced workplace sexual harassment.” And more recent surveys indicate that roughly 70 to 90 percent of women who have experienced workplace sexual harassment do not “formally make a complaint to their employers or file a charge with fair employment agencies.” Just recently, ABC reported that “a staggering 60% say they have experienced sexual harassment on the job.”
What has been done?
Despite widespread adoption of sexual harassment training to prevent sexual harassment in US workplaces, there is little data to show it is effective and abuses are obviously still widespread. Of course, when women in higher status occupations — like high profile actresses join collectively to “break the silence” around a perpetrator that has persistently committed sexual harassment at work — it will help to bring this issue to the mainstream media’s attention. As a result we are now seeing some very high-profile men being held accountable and even fired as companies that have shielded these men finally start taking action amidst public outrage. Recently, this media attention has also given rise to the #MeToo social media campaign, which has resulted in millions of individuals sharing their experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault on social media in the U.S. and worldwide.
But sexual harassment is not just perpetuated by the powerful men we hear about in the news, from Hollywood, Silicon Valley or the political world; the supervising manager at the local grocery store will not make headlines and be forced to quit. Sexual harassment is pervasive in our society and needs to be addressed at all levels.
What else can be done?
Campaigns to address the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault can raise awareness about the gendered power imbalance that allow such abuses by men in positions of power throughout the world of work, the importance of reporting them, and the importance of there being zero tolerance. Even among women in low-wage, vulnerable occupations, there are grassroots efforts to expose sexual harassment/assault at work. Following up on Rape in the Fields/Violación de un Sueño, a 2013 Frontline (PBS) documentary about the sexual abuse of immigrant women in the farming industry, the 2015 Frontline (PBS) documentary “Rape on the Night Shift,” “uncovered the sexual abuse of immigrant women who clean the malls where you shop, the banks where you do business, and the offices where you work.”
The bigger picture
Exposing the problem of workplace sexual harassment is only the first step. Making workplaces healthier and safer is the next step. As author & activist Barbara Ehrenreich said recently, “Sexual harassment is part of a larger pattern in the abuse of working people.” We need better working conditions, especially for low-wage, vulnerable women workers, enforceable national policies and business practices that protect all workers from unhealthy and toxic workplaces. Ultimately, to achieve this, we need more and better labor organizing to provide women and men the ability and confidence to report sexual harassment. Reporting systems for women in non-standard employment need to be put into place. And corporations need to pay attention to their low-wage workers employed through subcontractors or temp agencies, by extending to them the same policies and benefits available to their salaried employees, including sexual harassment training and reporting.
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Marnie Dobson Zimmerman, Ph.D., WOE Associate Producer of Research and Associate Director of the Center for Social Epidemiology, is a medical sociologist and a work stress researcher for more than 15 years, studying the effects of work organization on worker stress and health. She has worked to give voice to many worker populations, interviewing and conducting focus groups with firefighters, bus drivers, hotel room cleaners, communication workers, publishing academic research articles and co-editing the book Unhealthy Work: Causes, Consequences, Cures. (Baywood, 2009) (LinkedIn, Twitter)
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