Weinstein, Spacey, Louis C.K. The names we’re used to seeing in bright lights and movie credits are now associated with a culture of sexual harassment and assault that has been running rife in the social circles of America’s famous. In the past few weeks dozens of women have reported men in Hollywood for harassing or sexually assaulting them, and the repercussions for the accused have been unprecedented. Many of the famous men who have been fired on the basis of these recent reports had previously been linked to such behavior—in some cases, for years. What’s seems to be different in the current cultural climate is that victims of sexual assault or harassment are now being believed.
Why? Perhaps it’s because, this time, the revelations came from names as glitzy and well-recognized as the accused. Judd, Paltrow, McGowan, Jolie—award-winning women the world has seen on red carpets and silver screens—told their stories of being harassed on the job and the world listened. But when Tarana Burke tried a decade ago to highlight the ubiquity of sexual violence in the lives of everyday women, those stories barely caused a ripple. Though we are grateful to the brave women of Hollywood for shining a spotlight on workplace sexual harassment, it says something about our society that we didn’t listen until celebrities shared those stories.
What of the undocumented immigrant picking fruit to support herself and her family, who has to live with the very real fear of being raped on the job? Does she not deserve to be heard and believed? What of the middle-aged woman earning $10 an hour to clean hotel rooms, who’s been inappropriately touched by a guest who frequently patronizes her place of work? Who will listen to her? What of the 20-something college student who depends on customer tips to supplement her $2.13 an hour tipped minimum wage? What recourse does she have when a customer pairs tips with sexually suggestive comments about her body? Of the sexual harassment complaints the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission receives from workers, more than 37 percent are from restaurant workers alone. Why hasn’t there been a wide-ranging response to their experiences and those of the millions of other women who do the jobs we all depend on? And if not now, when will there be one?
Restaurant jobs feature heavily in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of America’s ten lowest paid occupations, and it should go without saying that low-paid workers are particularly vulnerable to workplace abuse of all kinds. Imagine how difficult it would be to speak out against your manager’s inappropriate touches when you’re already struggling to pay rent, and you need every hour on the schedule you can get. For scores of women living paycheck to paycheck, reporting workplace sexual harassment often has to be weighed against the prospect of losing financial security. Harassment isn’t heinous only because it damages victims’ sense of safety; it also fundamentally affects women’s ability to earn the income, professional development, and financial security that should be accessible to all working people.
Some have questioned why the women making reports now didn’t say something earlier. Many of the actresses who have come out about their experiences with Weinstein feared that he would use his immense influence to end careers they had dreamed of and worked hard for. For millions of women working for low wages in retail, food service, and office cubicles across the country, that trepidation can be even larger. Reporting their workplace harassment could affect their ability to feed their children, to pay off student loans, to keep the heat on in their apartment, and to get another comparable job.
That’s not supposition. For one woman who shared her story with Women Employed, that’s exactly what happened. An employee at a manufacturing plant for almost ten years, she made a report to HR about a coworker who kept touching her inappropriately. A couple weeks later, she was laid off and he was transferred to another location.
“I had the highest seniority, low attendance points, knew and could do every job in the department as well as anyone. I have reason to believe my job was not eliminated,” she told WE.
Many of us are rightfully energized by the staying-power and unique unfolding of the current conversation about sexual harassment, and we have the headline-grabbing names which propelled it onto newspaper front pages to thank for that. But if this moment is to truly herald a change in culture and workplaces, it’s important that it elevates those victims whose silence has been enforced by their economic insecurity just as strongly as those voices bound by million-dollar non-disclosure agreements.