As anyone knows who has thought about the subject for more than a minute, there’s nothing new about sexual harassment. Women (and to a lesser degree, men) have been experiencing it for as long as there have been workplaces.
Nor has its existence been a great secret. Journalists have documented in great detail the harassment and sometimes violence that women face in the fields, on factory production lines, as well as in political campaigns and corporate boardrooms. Hollywood has used sexual harassment as a central plot in films such as “North Country,” which is based on a true story, and the comedy “Horrible Bosses,” which we sincerely hope is not.
But pervasive sexual harassment, and the toll taken on those who are victimized by it, didn’t receive the nationwide outpouring of outrage it deserved until this year, when it became a problem of the rich, famous and successful. It took dozens of A-list actresses and internationally known models coming forward to accuse producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct to spark the backlash that became the #Metoo movement.
So far, the headlines have mostly been attached to the stories of women in the high-profile fields of entertainment, media, tech and politics who have alleged various forms of sexual misconduct by powerful and often well-known men. Missing have been the stories of the hotel maids, farmworkers, restaurant servers and others whose economic need and relative powerlessness has often left them without recourse. Sixty percent of women say they’ve experienced sexual harassment, according to one poll, and their stories should be heard even if they are only calling out Joe the factory foreman and not Joe the studio chief.
If there’s to be a second act to this cultural movement — and we hope there will be — it should focus on the plight of lower-wage workers in industries where sexual harassment is also rampant, but where victims have fewer resources than the average movie star. Many of these women are immigrants or women of color, with little protection from retaliation if they complain.
Although it’s hard to know exactly how many women in factories, fields and fast-food restaurants experience sexual harassment, there’s evidence to suggest it may be rampant. When Human Rights Watch interviewed farmworkers for a 2012 report on sexual violence in the fields, for instance, nearly all said they had either experienced sexual harassment or personally knew someone who had. Another survey two years earlier of 150 female Central Valley farmworkers found that 80% said they had been harassed.
Hospitality and food services jobs are rife with sexual harassment as well; this industry files more sexual harassment complaints than any other, according to an analysis of a decade’s worth of data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by the Center for American Progress. Complaints from retail and manufacturing jobs come second and third respectively.
This jibes with what a Chicago local of the Unite Here union found when it surveyed female members employed in that city’s hotels and casinos. Of 500 respondents, 58% said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment, from sexual propositions to groping, in most cases from male guests. More than three-fourths of the casino workers reported that they had experienced some sexual harassment. The most frequently reported form of harassment experienced by hotel housekeepers was indecent exposure by guests.
The risk for women working alone in hotel rooms has driven labor unions to push to outfit housekeepers with “panic buttons” that connect directly with the front desk. This began in New York City after the former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, allegedly assaulted a hotel maid. Panic buttons are just one example of a concrete response to sexual harassment (and lamentably, it again took a high-profile case to spur action on this deep-rooted work hazard.) Since then, other cities have either adopted ordinances requiring panic buttons or are considering them. Part of this next phase will require exploring new policies, procedures and laws to address the unique sexual harassment challenges in various industries.