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Power imbalances, ‘myths’ make sexual harassment pervasive at work

In its latest report, researchers at Better Life Lab analyzed decades of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as peer-reviewed literature, to better understand sexual harassment across all industries. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — On Oct. 5, 2017, The New York Times published personal accounts from prominent actresses on how, for decades, renowned Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed the women with whom he worked.

In the days and months that followed, more allegations emerged against Weinstein, as well as other men in powerful positions — NBC anchor Matt Lauer, U.S. Senator Al Franken, and celebrity chef Mario Batali, to name a few. And there’s one thing that these examples, and most other #MeToo cases, have in common: the harassment happened in the workplace.

Amanda Lenhart, deputy director of New America’s Better Life Lab, said there are “a bunch of big factors” that make sexual harassment so common in one’s place of employment.

“But I think the biggest one that we found is, it’s really about power,” said Lenhart, who is also co-author of the think tank’s report, “Sexual Harassment: A Severe and Pervasive Problem.”

“When we look across sectors, even in sectors that are dominated by women, men tend to have the highest-paying and the most powerful jobs. And so we have this big power imbalance between men and women in the workforce, and that power imbalance ends up enabling these kinds of behaviors.”

In its latest report, researchers at Better Life Lab analyzed decades of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as peer-reviewed literature, to better understand sexual harassment across all industries, “and to try to look for patterns in what we could see about sexual harassment — what were the factors that contributed to it and what could we really learn from this big view of sexual harassment in America today,” Lenhart said.

What Lenhart and her colleagues found is that sexual harassment — both sex-based and gender-based — persists in nearly every sector of the workforce — from low-wage to high-wage professions.

About 44 percent of Americans say they have received “unwanted sexual advances or verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature” both in and out of the workplace; 69 percent of women who have experienced harassment say at least one incident happened in their workplace, according to Pew Research Center.

Better Life Lab’s study found that the sector riddled with the most reports of harassment is the hospitality industry. (Lenhart cautioned that just because an instance of harassment is not reported, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, only 6 to 13 percent of employees who experience sexual harassment file a complaint; 87 to 94 percent don’t for reasons ranging from fear of disbelief to fear of social and professional retaliation.)

Allegations of sexual misconduct have rocked the restaurant industry this year. D.C.-based restaurateur and former “Top Chef” contestant Mike Isabella settled a lawsuit filed in federal court brought on by a former employee who alleged she was sexually harassed at work, The Washington Post reports. Well-known New York restaurateur Ken Friedman was also accused of sexual harassment in his West Village restaurant, Spotted Pig, where a space on the third floor earned the nickname “the rape room,” according to The New York Times.

Better Life Lab’s report found that while women, especially lower wage earners who hold less powerful positions, are the most common targets of sexual harassment, they are not the only victims. Lenhart said men who “don’t conform to traditional masculine norms,” and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees are also more likely to be targeted. So are minorities.

Attitudes and ideals fueled by a history of gender imbalance and inequality play a big role in harassment cases. Lenhart said “myths and narratives that we tell about who does what kind of work and what are appropriate roles for people of different genders” contributes to gender-based harassment. These “myths we tell ourselves” are also what’s helped shield “the creative genius” or the “rainmaker” from consequences for inappropriate actions.

“[There are instances] where powerful, often men, were protected through their toxic and bad behavior because we believe that somehow they’re bringing value to a company or they have something that’s so precious that they have to kind of be protected in this way,” Lenhart added.

But in the last year, things have started to shift. A recent New York Times analysis found that since October 2017, at least 200 high-powered men lost their jobs after public allegations of sexual harassment.

“We’re beginning to realize that those kinds of behaviors have enormous costs — both financial as well as social — and people are fighting back,” Lenhart said.

“I think what we’re seeing now is a sense of unleashing — an opening of opportunity for people to talk about this. And I think that’s really what’s changed — the sense that it’s time to change the norms around behavior and the myths that we tell ourselves about people.”

Coupled with its report, Better Life Lab released a #NowWhat tool kit for individuals and employers with researched-based ideas on how to revamp trainings and set up third-party reporting structures to help prevent cases of workplace-based sexual harassment going forward. There are also suggestions for legal reform.

“If you empower people and you teach people how to step up, that can actually make a big difference in people’s experiences,” Lenhart said.


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