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The unique challenges that low-wage women face when they're sexually harassed at work

25 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

Protestors demonstrate outside of a New York City McDonald’s after allegations that the company ignored reports of sexual harassment in October, 2016.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A quarter of women and 10 percent of men have experienced sexual harassment at work, according to a Washington Post survey.

It’s a problem that spans all forms of work, from servers and nursing assistants to panelists on major news networks: The New York Times reported earlier this week that Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly settled five separate sexual harassment cases over the past two decades. President Donald Trump, himself accused of sexual harassment and assault, even came to O’Reilly’s defense.

It’s also a huge problem in low-wage work. Two-thirds of low-wage workers are women. For these women, workplace harassment has its own unique barriers. They often don’t have the option to leave their job, as Trump suggested women who face sexual harassment should, and don’t have the time and money to file a formal complaint.

Emily Martin knows the problem well. She’s the general counsel and vice president of workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, an organization that provides policy advocacy and legal counsel for female workers. Martin recalls a recent conversation with a group of female Walmart employees who endured sexually inappropriate touching and name calling at the hands of their supervisor.

One of the reasons they didn’t want to come forward, Martin remembers, was that for many of these women, that Walmart paycheck was the last thing standing between their family and financial disaster.

I spoke to Martin about the unique challenges low-wage female workers face when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Karen Turner

What makes low-wage women who are facing sexual harassment particularly vulnerable?

Emily Martin

Low-wage women workers are especially vulnerable to harassment and other forms of discrimination because they typically don’t have a lot of bargaining power on the job. Their supervisors may see them as easily replaceable, expendable.

And supervisors recognize that as women who really need this paycheck and don’t have a lot of financial cushion, these workers are in a situation where they might be more willing to endure behavior that they would otherwise push back against if they had a more secure life.

Particularly if the woman working a low-wage job has other markers of vulnerability — say she’s really young, or she’s undocumented, or English isn’t her primary language — all of these sorts of factors can have the effect of closing down, making unavailable, support networks that she might otherwise have. And it makes it less likely that she will have the information and the confidence to assert her rights in the workplace.

Karen Turner

And women make up a huge portion of low-wage workers, right?

Emily Martin

Women are about two-thirds of workers in low-wage jobs, including minimum-wage jobs. So these are jobs like retail work, fast food, cleaning, work in the hospitality industry like hotel housekeeper, jobs in nursing assistance, and home health care jobs. Agricultural work is also a place where low-wage women workers experience especially high rates of sexual harassment.

A lot of jobs in the service industry in particular are dominated by women working for very little money. The women working in these jobs often have families to support, often have young children, and sometimes are the only source of income for their families. All of that means they have a lot riding on making that job work. Also, if you are in the service industry, part of what your supervisor might be judging your performance on is how happy you are keeping the customers.

So, for example, restaurant work has extremely high rates of sexual harassment at the hands of managers and co-workers, but also at the hands of customers. And that's in part because restaurant workers’ income depends largely on tip, again, that it’s very hard to push back against behavior that may be inappropriate and unacceptable because your livelihood, your family’s livelihood, is absolutely [on] the line in those moments.

Karen Turner

Are there unique pressures they face in the legal realm as well?

Emily Martin

Frankly, at every income level, very few women experiencing harassment actually bring a legal claim. It’s something like under 10 percent file a formal complaint. And that's because really, whether you are a producer at Fox News or whether you are a cashier at Wal-Mart, it’s a difficult thing to bring a legal claim against your employer when you're still working there and still trying to make that job work. Especially when you're someone who doesn't have a financial cushion, doesn't have a lot of options, who is one paycheck away from a real financial crisis in your life, there's a reasonable fear of retaliation in those circumstances. This retaliation is illegal, but it still happens a lot. So bringing a legal claim is difficult for anybody to do, and it's especially difficult if the risk of retaliation means a risk of homelessness for you and your kids, for example.

It’s also especially difficult for women in low-wage jobs to bring harassment complaints because you'd like to have an attorney and there aren't a lot of legal services available to bring employment cases in most parts of the country. There are lots of parts of the country where employment cases just aren't something that legal aid offices will do. So you have to find an attorney who is willing to bring your case pro bono, which is very unlikely to happen, or an attorney who is willing to take the risk because they think there's some potential payoff later through a contingency fee.

All of that work to track down affordable legal counsel is difficult for anyone who isn’t wealthy, but it’s especially difficult if you have little money or probably little time. You’re probably trying to get as many hours as possible for work, probably have lots of family obligations outside of work and not a lot of money to throw at those obligations to give yourself the time to find legal help to build a case. All those reasons mean it can be extraordinarily difficult for workers in low-wage jobs to enforce their rights.

Karen Turner

Are there any examples that come to mind?

Emily Martin

On International Women’s Day, I participated in a conversation with a bunch of women who either currently or formerly worked in retail. They were thinking about ways in which they wanted to organize to address problems they saw as retail workers. Some of the things they talked about were stories of sexual harassment — supervisors who were known to be basically serial sexual harassers. Woman after woman experienced inappropriate comments, inappropriate touching, at the hands of this supervisor.

But even when they got together and realized it was a pattern and went to management, the response was only somewhat helpful. The supervisor was just reassigned to another store. So it was maybe helpful for women in that store, but not helpful for the broader workforce.

The backdrop for these women [is] lives that are complicated, families that are really depending on that paycheck. So women talked about how they were the sole support for their kids as a single parent, or how they were supporting family members with disabilities, and why they felt they were the ones who are standing between their families and financial disaster. So they felt a lot of responsibility to make the best of even difficult circumstances.

When you are being harassed, it’s difficult enough to realize what has happened to you has happened to other women, that this is a pattern. Understanding that your harasser has harassed other people too really makes a big difference in terms of how willing women are to stand up and say this is unacceptable. It helps in ensuring that victims don't blame themselves, don't think, “This is all just a big misunderstanding that I made happen, that I caused,” when you see that it’s happening to other women too. But even when you get over that hurdle, even when you go talk to management, too often we hear stories of management failing to respond in a way that’s really effective in addressing the problem.

Karen Turner

How do we fix it?

Emily Martin

That's a big question. There are lots of pieces. Definitely there is work that leaders at companies and business leaders should do to address workplace culture, to ensure that middle-level and low-level managers are being held accountable for taking steps to prevent harassment and for addressing harassment and taking it really seriously when it occurs.

Culturally, an important step is more systematically encouraging bystander intervention, of giving folks at work the tools they need to recognize when harassment is occurring to their co-workers and standing up and saying, “This is not okay.”

And definitely another important piece is formal and informal worker organizing. For example, if you are in a unionized workplace and you are experiencing harassment, you probably have the union to turn to to help you navigate that situation. If you're not in a unionized workplace, having the ability to work with workers’ rights groups and worker organizing groups can also help give you the tools, the framework to understand your rights, to articulate what's happening to you, to understand that it’s not just a personal problem but a violation of the law. This can be really useful in giving workers with low-wage jobs some power back.

There also are ways to strengthen the legal standards that govern sexual harassment that help get at some of the harassment that women in low-wage jobs tend to experience. So, as the result of a Supreme Court decision, it's harder for workers to bring cases challenging harassment by low-level supervisors, supervisors who have the authority to direct your daily work activities but don't have the authority to hire or fire you. Those lower-level supervisors are often the front-line supervisors in jobs like retail or fast food, for example, so strengthening sexual harassment laws to ensure that employers are held more directly accountable for harassment by low-level supervisors would be helpful.