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Sexual Harassment Isn’t Just A Silicon Valley Problem

Silicon Valley has been rocked by scandal in recent weeks as investor after investor has resigned amid allegations of sexist behavior and harassment of women. A former Uber employee’s blog post about the company’s toxic culture caused an internal investigation that contributed to the eventual resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick and set the stage for other women in the industry to come forward about their experiences. Before the tech sector, it was the media industry that was in the sexism spotlight, as first Roger Ailes and then Bill O’Reilly was pushed out of Fox News after being accused of harassment.

But while scandals like those draw headlines, thousands of other cases of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination, such as failing to promote women or paying them less than men, get much less attention — and often don’t result in firings or resignations. Many of those cases involve women who work in low-wage industries and have few resources with which to fight back.

“If you’re not torpedoing your opportunity to pay your rent from month to month and you feel like you can take a stand without sort of placing your income and livelihood at risk, obviously it’s easier to speak up,” said Emily Martin, vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies that improve the lives of women.

Data on sex-based discrimination and harassment in the workplace is spotty because so many cases go unreported. And the numbers that do exist can be messy, making it difficult to answer even basic questions, such as which industries have the biggest problem. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, received and considered 27,323 complaints of sex-based discrimination in fiscal 2016 but didn’t record the industry involved in about 60 percent of them.1 Still, the data that is available makes it clear that sex-based discrimination and harassment are problems far beyond tech. (The EEOC’s “sex-based discrimination” category includes both complaints of discrimination and complaints of harassment; the agency doesn’t break out data on the two types of allegations by industry.) Of the sex-based complaints that were categorized by sector, the most occurred in health care (14 percent of the total), manufacturing (12 percent) and retail (11 percent). Food services and public administration also had relatively high numbers of sex-based claims.2 (The EEOC’s data doesn’t break out tech as its own industry.)

Those numbers probably understate the extent of the problem. A collection of studies analyzed for a report on harassment in the workplace by the EEOC last year found that 70 percent of people who experience harassment never talk to a supervisor or manager about it. Surveys suggest that workplace sexual harassment is widespread: In a recent YouGov poll, 30 percent of women and 15 percent of men said they had been sexually harassed at work; 25 percent of respondents (of any sex) said they had witnessed the harassment of a colleague.

Both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that harassment is particularly pervasive in low-wage occupations such as restaurants and retail, industries like farming in which workers are isolated, and male-dominated fields like construction. The EEOC’s report noted that significant power disparities in a workplace can be a risk factor for harassment; that applies particularly to low-status workers and gendered workplaces (for example, where support staff are mostly women and supervisors or executives are men). Other risk factors mentioned in the report include workplaces where employee pay is connected to customer service and atmospheres that encourage alcohol consumption, characteristics that are often part of workplace cultures in low-wage industries such as food service. Not only are these environments creating a higher risk for harassment, but low-status workers are often not as equipped as higher-wage workers to remedy the problem.

Research points to fear of retaliation and legal hurdles as reasons that workers often don’t come forward with harassment claims, particularly in the low-wage workforce. Many employees, especially at small or male-dominated companies, don’t believe their complaints will be taken seriously internally. But reporting to external authorities can carry its own risks: Employers are notified of complaints filed with the EEOC and similar agencies, and although retaliation is illegal, there have been numerous cases of companies firing workers or altering their work schedules after they file complaints with management or a government agency. Workers who don’t have the economic security to be out of work or endure a long legal process may be less likely to take the risk.

The EEOC, in its report last year, said companies need to make changes in their training and investigation procedures for handling harassment in the workplace. Those changes could, in theory, lead more people to report harassment and, ultimately, lead to more accurate data. But even if that happens, Martin is skeptical that sex-based discrimination and harassment among low-wage workers will draw the public outcry that has accompanied the recent news from Silicon Valley.

“People tend to be more outraged when women that have all the professional credentials and high levels of education and success experience this kind of harassment,” Martin said. “When it happens to women in low-wage jobs, people tend to think, ‘Well that’s just part of the deal with those kinds of jobs.’”


  1. Complaints to the EEOC can be filed on more than one basis, such as race or sex.

  2. The industry breakdown of discrimination and harassment claims partly reflects the relative size of those industries. The health care sector, for example, accounts for 13 percent of employment, roughly matching its share of sex-based discrimination claims. But manufacturing appears to have a disproportionate share of discrimination claims: It accounted for 12 percent of claims but only 9 percent of employment (and 5 percent of women’s employment). The large number of cases for which no industry is recorded makes it difficult to identify patterns in the data with confidence. But at a minimum, the data shows that the problem crosses industry boundaries.

Kathryn Casteel is a former FiveThirtyEight staffer who wrote about economics and policy issues.


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