Sexual Harassment Won’t Stop If We Aren’t #FightingForFamilies

From the moment it was announced that the National Women’s Law Center would be housing and administering the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, we saw a dramatic spike in the number of women calling our intake line about sexual harassment. But we also saw a spike in equal pay intakes. We weren’t surprised; when a woman complains of sexual harassment at work, it is not uncommon to find out that she is also being discriminated against in her pay.
That is because sexual harassment isn’t about sex and pay discrimination isn’t about pay. They are both about power. They are about sexist and racist power structures in our workplaces that value women—and especially women of color—less.
Sexist stereotypes and outdated workplace structures—like the lack of paid leave, predictable work schedules, affordable child care, and union support—make it hard for women to get and keep good jobs and advance in the workplace. This leaves women with less power in the workplace, increasing their vulnerability to exploitation. Sexual harassment and pay discrimination are stark manifestations of that power imbalance.
Actors, like Debra Messing and Eva Longoria, who have been supporting Time’s Up on the red carpet, have been quick to make sure that the response to the #MeToo moment doesn’t just focus on sexual harassment, but also addresses other workplace inequalities, like gender pay disparities. They understand that sexual harassment and the gender wage gap exist in a vicious cycle that further entrenches these power imbalances.
Women’s lower on average wages leave them more vulnerable to harassment, as they struggle to get the raise they deserve or put food on the table. A striking example: tipped workers – two-thirds of whom are women – are paid not much over $2.13/hour in many states and are expected to make up the rest of their income with tips. Women who rely on tips to survive often feel forced to tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers so as not to jeopardize their income—and employers can be slow or unwilling to protect their employees for fear of upsetting a paying customer. Women’s lack of economic power in these workplaces perpetuates the already pervasive culture of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry and others that employ large numbers of tipped workers.
Sexual harassment, in turn, widens the wage gap by negatively impacting women’s wages and lifetime earnings. Sexual harassment can hurt employee health, productivity, and morale, and push women out of their jobs or lead them to leave an industry or profession altogether. Reporting harassment can damage career prospects and advancement. And for male-dominated jobs, like construction or STEM, the pervasiveness of sexual harassment keeps women from entering and staying in these jobs and earning the higher wages they offer, pushing them instead into lower-paying female-dominated jobs. All of this decreases women’s earnings relative to men’s.
As harassers and the employers that failed to hold them accountable are being called out, we also need to be calling out the workplace policies and structures that have allowed sexual harassment to persist for far too long.
This week, state legislators across the country are speaking out against the Trump Administration’s erosion of protections for working families. They are advancing a different vision—a #FightingForFamilies agenda that “promotes opportunity and fairness and creates economic security for American families by raising incomes and creating good jobs.” This agenda focuses on raising the minimum wage, the freedom to stand together in unions, paid leave, protections against pay discrimination and pregnancy discrimination, and affordable child care and health care, to name a few. Strengthening protections against sexual harassment is also, appropriately, a part of this agenda because sexual harassment threatens women’s equality in the workplace, it threatens women’s ability to get and keep a good job, to succeed at work, and to care and provide for their families. And strengthening our sexual harassment protections is long overdue.
State legislators have responded to this #MeToo moment with great energy and urgency, introducing dozens of bills to address and prevent sexual harassment within our workplaces, including their own legislatures. We applaud the policymakers seeking to harness the energy of the #MeToo movement into real solutions, but we must not forget how important workplace protections beyond our sexual harassment laws are to preventing sexual harassment. Legislators’ #MeToo efforts will be little more than window dressing if we aren’t fighting for systemic, structural changes in our workplaces to alleviate the gender power imbalances that have allowed sexual harassment to persist.
In the name of #MeToo, we need to be fighting for equal pay and to raise the minimum wage and eliminate the lower tipped minimum wage. We need to be fighting for supports for caregivers (the majority of whom are still women) like paid leave, pregnancy accommodations, and affordable child care. We need to be fighting not just to strengthen our protections against sexual harassment, but all forms of harassment and discrimination, as they are connected and together reinforce gender, racial, and other forms of inequality in our society that leave women vulnerable to harassment.
In short, #MeToo will be in vain, if we aren’t #FightingForFamilies.