clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Women of color in low-wage jobs are being overlooked in the #MeToo moment

"This is a workforce that is exploited all the time.”

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Solace was hard to find for Maricruz Ladino. Migrating to California in 1989, Ladino faced years of difficult or even abusive relationships at home, or backbreaking labor at work. But in addition to work in lettuce fields that she describes as so painful she “couldn’t even hold onto the lettuce,” Ladino also had to deal with abusive bosses.

“He got next to me, pointed to his crotch, and asked, ‘Who’s giving it to you? Are you getting it from your boyfriend, your husband? Who’s screwing you?’” she recounted to journalist Gabriel Thompson.

Ladino left that job in 2005 for a lettuce packing plant. There, she found herself again the target of sexual harassment by a supervisor who kept asking her to sleep with him. A few months into the job, he raped her.

Ladino didn’t report it immediately. “I fell into a depression. I didn’t know what to do. I kept working at the company for seven more months,” she told Thompson. She added that her undocumented status played a role in her reluctance to report. “I had two families that were depending on me.”

When she did eventually report her supervisor’s abuse, she was fired.

In the months since detailed accounts of Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct were first reported, the country has been swept up in a moment of reckoning. The seemingly unending wave of sexual misconduct and harassment charges levied against powerful figures in a range of industries, and the swift action taken to remove many these figures from power, has furthered the belief that we are at a pivotal moment, in which charges of workplace sexual harassment may finally be taken more seriously.

But this reckoning has not emboldened victims of harassment to report their experiences equally. The individualized coverage of these cases ignores countless people, many of whom are women of color who, like Ladino, work in low-wage jobs where the power imbalance is even less conducive to reporting sexual harassment. And even when the struggles of marginalized communities are reported, their stories are less likely to keep our attention.

The experiences of women of color have been mostly missing from the conversation at large despite evidence that they face disproportionately high levels of sexual violence in general, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Though the #MeToo movement has made clear the insidiousness and prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, it has also been centered mostly on the experiences of white, affluent, and educated women,” the Atlantic’s Gillian White recently wrote. Over at the Nation, Collier Meyerson noted that occupational differences play a role in how women of color deal with harassment: “industries in which women of color workers are strongly represented are also particular hotbeds of sexual harassment and assault.”

The unique issues facing marginalized people — already less likely to be working in the types of high-profile workplaces currently getting attention — have been largely relegated to the sidelines. If the current conversation has failed both women of color and low-income women, it has completely ignored those who live at the intersection of these identities. According to the Center for American Progress, industries that disproportionately employ women of color in low-wage jobs, like hospitality and retail, report some of the highest levels of sexual harassment. But it’s rare that we hear about them, or share their stories in the media.

Seeking systemic change in how we deal with workplace sexual harassment without acknowledging these groups threatens to keep progress limited to a subset of women, perpetuating a system in which minorities, especially poor women of color, are left without many options.

Sexual harassment in the workplace impacts people at all income levels, but the damage is compounded for marginalized women

Across economic classes, there are common threads when it comes to how workplace sexual harassment — and gender-based violence in the workplace more broadly — affects those who experience it. Fear of retaliation, of not being believed, of losing out on work and money are concerns shared by many survivors. These factors also play a role in willingness to report harassment. As Vox’s Anna North notes, while an October Washington Post/ABC News poll found that one-third of women reported experiencing sexual advances from a male colleague or a man with some degree of control over their job, the majority of people never report harassment, a choice often motivated by fear of retaliation.

For women of color, who are often concentrated at the bottom rungs of the workforce, the damage of those consequences can be intensified by their financial status, racial identity, and, in some cases, immigration status. According to a 2014 report from the National Women’s Law Center, women comprise some two-thirds of workers making $10.10 an hour or less, and of that group nearly half are women of color. Many of these women are working in jobs that have been historically viewed as “women’s work,” like housecleaning, cooking, and child care. A report from Oxfam and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that 43 percent of women in these “women-oriented” low-wage jobs — some 8.2 million people — are living “in or near poverty.”

That financial fragility in particular makes women from marginalized groups easy targets for abuse. “Harassers prey upon the fact that typically women working a low-wage job will be seen as very replaceable,” says Emily Martin, vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “If you have no financial cushion, if you need every bit of your paycheck to make ends meet, you are even more vulnerable to the threat of retaliation, to the fear of losing your job.”

It’s a complicated cycle, which makes it harder for nonwhite women working low-wage jobs to bring complaints to the attention of their employers and makes it easier to dismiss claims when they are made. “Women of color in particular face a redoubling of the risk of being disbelieved if you bring a complaint,” Martin says. “They may be less likely to be seen as, for the lack of a better phrase, ‘ideal victims.’”

The low-wage workforce is made up of many industries, and what sexual harassment looks like in them can vary greatly

The difficulty in drawing attention to the struggles of women of color in low-wage jobs may be partially due to the sheer range of work done by this section of the workforce. The low-wage workforce is not a monolith; rather, it encompasses a range of jobs taking place on farms; in restaurants, hotels, and fast-food chains; on factory floors; and inside private homes. Bosses can be a manager working on the same line, or a parent employing a nanny during working hours. And while mentions of low-wage workers typically recall images of those making $10 an hour or less, scholars are divided on the exact definition of a “low-wage worker.” (A recent report from the US Government Accountability Office generally classifies the low-wage workforce as making less than $16 per hour.)

The number and types of positions that can, by virtue of pay, qualify as a low-wage position leads to a diversity of experiences, perpetrators, and avenues for relief when it comes to sexual harassment.

A number of studies have laid out the problems in various industries. A 2016 survey of 500 hospitality workers in Chicago conducted by the Unite Here hospitality union found that 58 percent of hotel workers and 77 percent of casino workers reported being sexually harassed by a guest, while 49 percent of hotel housekeepers reported having guests expose their genitals or answer doors naked. A 2014 report from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a group that advocates for restaurant workers across the country, found that 60 percent of women in the industry have experienced sexual harassment; half of them said they deal with it at least once a week. Another recent report found that 42 percent of women in the fast-food industry who said they’ve experienced “unwanted sexual behavior” reported feeling that they had to accept the harassment or lose their jobs.

Maids from a New York housekeeping union protest former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn in front of the Criminal Courts Building of New York on June 6, 2011. Strauss-Kahn was accused of brutally raping a hotel housekeeper; the charges were later dropped, and both parties agreed to settle for an undisclosed sum.
Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

In many of these sectors, the service industry in particular, workplace harassment doesn’t just occur at the hands of co-workers or employers; it can also happen be perpetrated by patrons and customers. “There’s this very depressed wage structure that makes people rely on customer satisfaction to make a wage,” says Sheerine Alemzadeh, a Chicago attorney and co-founder of Healing to Action, which works to build a worker-led movement against workplace sexual violence. “[It] makes it difficult to stand up to unwanted sexual advances from people when your paycheck is literally dependent on them being happy with your service.”

In addition to financial concerns, lower levels of regulation in some industries can create additional barriers to reporting workplace harassment. “Rape in the Fields,” a 2013 Frontline investigation, detailed how agriculture, an industry that employs high numbers of undocumented women, has also been found to have high levels of sexual harassment and assault that are encouraged by the vulnerable nature of immigrant victims. “Rape on the Night Shift,” a 2015 series by the investigative news organization Reveal that uncovered sexual abuse faced by immigrant women in the janitorial industry, found that “the very fact that their workers are supposed to remain unseen in an industry that takes all comers means that when it comes to sexual violence on the job, almost everything that could go wrong does.”

Ladino, the lettuce farm worker fired by her employer soon after she filed a complaint, sued her company, winning an undisclosed settlement in 2010. Her story was featured in the aforementioned Frontline investigation.

“The dark side, the horrible side, of working in the fields is the abuse,” she says. “To be afraid of the person who has power, the person who insults us, who threatens us, who can fire us whenever they want. I want to share what happened to me to help find a solution, to prevent this from happening again.”

But telling stories like Ladino’s remains difficult. Bernice Yeung, a Reveal journalist and author of a forthcoming book about the struggles of immigrant women doing low-wage work, notes that “traps and barriers remain” for immigrant women, many of whom fear permanently losing work or coming to the attention of immigration authorities should they report workplace sexual harassment.

Almas Sayeed, general counsel for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has seen this firsthand. She notes that harassment is also prevalent in the domestic care industry, where, much like female farmworkers, women in this line of work are far more isolated than their counterparts in food or hospitality service. “Domestic workers work in people’s homes completely by themselves,” she says, adding that the nature of domestic work also makes it difficult for women to access legal protections. “This is a workforce that is exploited all the time.”

This reality obscures the importance of domestic work in American society: Home health care work, for example, is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the workforce, and other jobs that fall under the domestic work umbrella — cooking, housecleaning, child care — continue to be in demand.

If left unchecked, advocates say, the current structure of domestic work and other low-wage industries will continue to leave the vulnerable open to abuse. Some domestic workers are employed and managed by agencies, but many are directly employed by people or families and often lack employment contracts. Because of their intimate work environments, domestic workers — a group largely composed of immigrant women — are rarely able to bring federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claims, and 42 states have no protections for them on the books.

“In this line of work, there is no HR department where you can report an incident, and entities like the EEOC often don’t offer clear paths to hold abusers accountable,” Alicia Garza, strategy and partnerships director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a co-creator of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, explained in an op-ed for BuzzFeed. “Our laws have been painfully insufficient.”

Women of color shaped sexual harassment policy. Now they’re more likely to slip through its cracks.

That so many women of color struggle with workplace harassment in silence is unfortunate given the role that nonwhite women, most notably black women, played in developing federal sexual harassment policy and in the establishment of sexual harassment as a form of discrimination.

As Raina Lipsitz explained for the Nation in October, “the earliest pioneers of sexual-harassment litigation were black women inspired by the civil-rights movement.” In 1975, Carmita Wood left her job in a Cornell University lab after being harassed by her boss. She helped found a group called Working Women United, which would present some of the first anti-discrimination arguments using the term sexual harassment.

There was Paulette Barnes, an administrative assistant at the Environmental Protection Agency, who filed a legal complaint after a male supervisor asked her on dates and repeatedly suggested that her career would be helped by having an affair with him, only to try to fire her when she refused. Her case led to a 1977 appeals court decision that sexual harassment constituted a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 14, 1991.
Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

In the first sexual harassment case to reach the Supreme Court, Mechelle Vinson, an employee of Capital City Federal Savings Bank, argued that her male supervisor had abused her verbally and physically and that the abuse included instances of rape, creating a “hostile work environment” that entitled her to relief under the aforementioned sexual harassment protections of the Civil Rights Act. The bank, recently acquired by new leadership, argued that it was not liable for the assault, noting that previous rulings had held that sexual harassment needed to have a component of economic or other “tangible” discrimination and that an employer needed to be aware of the harassment in order to be liable. The Supreme Court sided with Vinson, ruling unanimously in 1986 that her claim did fall under the protections.

And then there’s Anita Hill, whose October 1991 testimony before an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment to national attention. These cases — and many others — helped build the understanding that sexual harassment was a form of sex-based discrimination, an understanding that was directly informed by the racial consciousness spurred by the civil rights movement, and one that was uniquely felt by nonwhite women. Lipsitz writes:

Besides black plaintiffs, what these cases have in common is that they helped define sexual harassment as a civil-rights violation that harms women as a group, not a personal problem. (Feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon has argued that sexual harassment is group-based discrimination that harms all women economically by reinforcing their subordination in the workplace.)

Because sexual exploitation has been an element of racism for black women from slavery to the present, some scholars have suggested that they were quicker than white women to see sexual harassment as a form of discrimination. As legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw has speculated, “racism may well provide the clarity to see that sexual harassment is neither a flattering gesture nor a misguided social overture but an act of intentional discrimination that is insulting, threatening, and debilitating.”

But in the decades since these legal victories, it remains difficult for women — particularly those who are low-income, face language barriers, or have immigration concerns — to successfully bring harassment claims in the workplace. An accuser must follow strict reporting requirements if they believe their employer is liable for the harassment, including filing a claim with the EEOC before proceeding with a lawsuit. Limitations on what types of workplaces and employment situations qualify for federal or state-level relief leave many women in low-wage jobs without options.

And even if a case clears those requirements and makes it to the EEOC, the statute of limitations on filing sexual harassment claims creates a narrow reporting window that is often difficult for women fearful of retaliation to meet. The Boston Globe notes that lawyers can be hesitant to take sexual harassment cases because they take a tremendous amount of resources, with little guarantee of a large payday at the end.

“The odds are really stacked against these workers in coming forward and asserting their rights,” Alemzadeh says. “The lack of economic security gives them less bargaining power, and it also raises the stakes for them if they do experience retaliation, because it’s not just about finding another job or having some damage to their career. For them a lot of times, it is a matter of actual life and death.”

There’s also the problem of how to address sexual harassment that is rooted in a person’s race and gender. Currently, federal law lacks any consistent means for addressing allegations of harassment that prey upon the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, a gap that leaves women of color in the workplace uniquely vulnerable.

A 2016 report from the co-chairs of the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace noted that “when the target of harassment is both a member of a racial minority group and a woman, the individual is more likely to experience higher rates of harassment than white women and nonwhite men.” Even so, the task force chairs argue that studies of sexual and racial harassment are still highly likely to focus on the experiences of white women and nonwhite men respectively.

Recent policy decisions from the federal government have complicated matters even further. In March, President Trump signed an executive order revoking several of Barack Obama’s federal contracting orders, including the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order put in place to ensure that federal contractors complied with labor laws, which had also banned contractors from forced arbitration clauses to address claims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or discrimination.

The Supreme Court has also muddied the waters, ruling 5-4 in 2013’s Vance v. Ball State University that low-level supervisors who lack hiring and firing power should not be counted as supervisors when determining employer liability for harassment. Advocates have criticized the decision, noting that the ruling has made it harder for millions of women in the low-wage workforce to report harassment from those who may not be able to fire them but can make their work incredibly difficult.

A change in cultural understanding of sexual harassment may be even more important for marginalized women

The overall lack of attention toward marginalized people in low-wage jobs can leave us with a skewed image of who faces sexual harassment and what “real harassment” looks like. A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found that respondents believed sexual harassment was more likely to occur in the entertainment industry and the federal government, a perception likely fueled by media coverage of both fields in the past two months.

It also speaks to a broader issue that threatens to stymie true progress in the post-Weinstein landscape: Conversations about sexual harassment continue to center on the misconduct of individuals rather than the systems that enabled them to operate for so long without consequences. It’s easy to frame the issue as the result of the bad behavior of a few men rather than the result of a culture that fails to truly treat women as equals. It’s harder still to acknowledge how race, class, sexual orientation, and other factors can affect a worker’s ability to deal with abuse, and how that affects the perception of their accusations.

“The standards for this workforce are different because its women of color doing the work, [and] they’re taking care of kids, they’re cleaning,” says Sayeed, from the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “It’s not seen as real work.” It’s not hard to see how this line of thinking could affect other industries that disproportionately employ poor women of color.

The problem has yet to be fully acknowledged, but advocates say some solutions are already on the table. Chief among them is organizing women in low-wage jobs to speak for themselves. Sayeed and Healing to Action’s Alemzadeh argue that amplifying the efforts of low-wage workers organizing for increased protections and better pay is a necessary step to promote change and disrupt the inertia that has pushed poor women of color and other minorities outside of public awareness.

Unions have already seen some success on this front. In Chicago, for example, the aforementioned Unite Here survey of hospitality workers helped spur the passage of legislation that outfits housekeepers with panic buttons.

But another, perhaps more fundamental solution is to keep the needs and stories of marginalized communities in mind as the current reckoning continues and evolves. Sexual harassment isn’t limited to one community. If the current #MeToo moment leaves marginalized women behind, it will fail to produce truly lasting change.