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What Do Les Moonves and the Gender Wage Gap Have in Common? A Lot.

As the details of CBS C.E.O. Les Moonves’ removal for sexual harassment and assault were unraveling last week, the U.S. Census Bureau was releasing data about the gender wage gap. Once again, the data showed that nationally, women across all races are paid only 80 cents on the dollar paid to men, meaning that the wage gap has been stagnant for over a decade now. When broken down by race, the data showed that the wage gap between women of color and white, non-Hispanic men increased by as much as 2 cents.

While the breaking of the Moonves story and the annual release of Census Bureau data were entirely unrelated, the disturbing realities presented by both are, in fact, entirely related. 

Throughout the stories of sexual harassment and assault suffered at the hands of Moonves and others in positions of power at CBS, we see a disturbing theme: the harassment resulted in economic harm to the survivors. For some, the emotional and psychological distress caused by the harassment or the assault deeply impacted their ability to work, leaving them unable to focus and perform and visibly distressed and shaking in the presence of their assaulter. Some were berated at work after refusing sexual advances, their professional performance severely criticized, and rumors spread that they were difficult to work with. And many were quickly pushed out of contracts or potential career advancement opportunities. For those now coming forward years after the initial incident, they did not speak up about the harassment or assault at the time because they knew (or were threatened by Moonves himself) that to do so could be “career suicide.” Indeed, the damage Les Moonves reportedly actively inflicted on Janet Jackson’s (but not Justin Timberlake’s) album sales and reputation after Timberlake ripped off a piece of Jackson’s costume briefly exposing her breast during their 2004 Super Bowl performance reveals the extent to which Moonves’ sex- and race-based harassment could destroy careers. In stark contrast, men at CBS who had sexual harassment complaints and settlements lodged against them were promoted.

Destroying their ability to perform at work, disparaging their professional performance, pushing them out of professional opportunities or jobs altogether, and blacklisting them from entire industries—these are just a few of the ways in which sexual harassment and retaliation can cut down survivors’ earnings. And failing to hold harassers accountable, choosing instead to protect and promote them, is how employers like CBS operate to continue to boost harassers’ earnings.

Given that targets of harassment are predominately women, and the harassers predominately men, this is how we end up with a gender wage gap. 

But this doesn’t even account for the economic harm suffered by women who didn’t pursue certain advancement opportunities at CBS or left higher paying opportunities in the entertainment industry because of the toxic culture towards women that is created when the head of an organization engages in harassment and leadership fails to hold harassers accountable. Nor does it account for the gender pay discrimination which is also often a symptom of a corporate culture that values women less. (See Lilly Ledbetter’s New York Times Equal Pay Day op ed describing the sexual harassment she suffered at Goodyear years prior to filing her pay discrimination suit). All of this decreases women’s earnings relative to men’s, playing a not insignificant role in the wage gap data released last week.

Of course, as the Me Too movement has so clearly shown us, what happened at CBS isn’t unique to CBS or even the entertainment industry.

Just one example: today, McDonalds workers will be striking to protest a corporate culture where sexual harassment is apparently routinely tolerated. Women in low-wage jobs are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, often feeling forced to tolerate inappropriate behavior so as not to jeopardize their income. Sexual harassment can cause significant financial insecurity by forcing women to cut back on hours or change jobs and blocking them from opportunities to advance out of lower paying positions or occupations into higher paying positions. All of this, once again, contributes to the wage gap.

So the next time you hear someone say the wage gap is due largely to “women’s choices” to take or leave certain jobs or advancement opportunities, think about CBS and McDonalds. The real choice we should be concerned about is an employer’s decision to hold harassers accountable and protect survivors from retaliation.