The Myth of a #MeToo Generational Divide

This is the fifth part of a year-long blog series that tackles the obstacles to wealth building that Millennial women face over their lifetimes. The goal is to unpack the forces that create the wealth gap for Millennial women and point to both practical advice and policy suggestions that can help create a more stable economic future for this generation of women.

Sexual harassment is having a cultural moment that is undoubtedly shaping politics and activism in our country. The viralization of #MeToo last year, the wave of public accountability for high profile men, and, most recently, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s courageous testimony during the Kavanaugh hearings, have helped fuel a spark that was lit in 2006, when activist Tarana Burke first coined the phrase “MeToo.” That spark has turned into a roaring flame as women have bravely come forward to demand that men, workplaces, and other institutions be held accountable for sexual harassment and assault.
Even as survivors of differing races, abilities, sexualities, socioeconomic classes, nationalities, and religions are coming together to protest, speak out, and demand real change, there is some talk that maybe women are divided on the issue based on their generation. The idea is that older generations of women (think Baby Boomers) are more tolerant of workplace sexual harassment because, as young women in the workplace, they tended to stay silent or sweep sexual harassment under the rug because this kind of behavior from male colleagues was deemed just part of the job. On the other hand, younger generations of women (think Millennials) have grown up with more workplace protections and a feminist language with which to discuss and call out these issues, which has resulted in a zero-tolerance outlook on sexual harassment. In turn, these generational experiences, resources, and vocabularies shape women’s relationship to the #MeToo movement.
While this generational narrative can be supported by examining the workplace norms of the time, some of it is anecdotal. But what does the data show? A NWLC report released in August examined sexual harassment charges filed by women with the EEOC between 2012 and 2016. During this five-year period, 88.4 percent of women who filed sexual harassment charges with the EEOC fit into 3 generations: Millennials (born between 1980-1996), Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979), and Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). Of that 88.4 percent, Millennial women and Gen X women filed sexual harassment charges at nearly identical rates (40 and 41 percent respectively), while the rates for Boomer women were drastically lower at 19 percent. While this data confirms a gap in reporting between younger and older generations of women, it is important to note that only 6 to 13 percent of people actually file a formal sexual harassment charge. So, EEOC data only tells part of the story and tends to obfuscate the many obstacles that keep survivors from filing a formal charge.
This data illustrates a definite divide between Millennials and Baby Boomers when it comes to reporting sexual harassment. But does this schism exist when it comes to perceptions of the #MeToo movement? A March 2018 survey conducted by Vox showed that women are more united on the issue of sexual harassment—and their support of #MeToo—than this narrative of generational discord makes it seem. In the survey, 71 percent of women under 35 said they support #MeToo, followed closely by 68 percent of women over 35. When asked whether they thought #MeToo represented their interests, there was only a 6-percentage point difference between women over and under 35. Participants even shared similar rates of workplace sexual harassment: 29 percent of women under 35 and 33 percent women over 35 reported experiencing workplace sexual harassment.
So, here’s what we know to be true about this so-called generational divide: while more Millennial women than Boomer women have filed formal sexual harassment charges with the EEOC, women of all ages have similar views on #MeToo—it’s a movement that speaks to their experiences and best interests in the workplace and beyond.
Millennial and Boomer women also experience similar effects of workplace sexual harassment on their professional and economic lives. Research shows that sexual harassment forces women out of jobs and impacts their career attainment. Survivors of sexual harassment leave their jobs for a variety of reasons, including an employer’s inaction or retaliation. Being forced to leave one’s job can have detrimental effects, particularly on Millennial women who are just starting their careers or becoming more established in their field. What’s worse is that these career disruptions can lead to a loss of income, making it hard to pay the bills, especially if the survivor is single or living in a single-income family. Job loss also means losing important benefits like employer-sponsored health insurance, 401k matching, and other wealth-building opportunities.
Some survivors are forced to leave their social or professional networks behind in search of a new position, which can lead to a loss of earning power, difficulties securing references for future positions, and lots of stress. Single Millennials might not have a second income to fall back on, while, for single Millennials mothers, job displacement carries an extra burden. Not only does losing one’s income make it harder to afford the kinds of things a child needs to thrive (healthy food, a safe place to live, school supplies, etc.) but it can also shape a child’s educational and psychological outcomes.
If lucky enough to find new jobs, survivors might be required to retrain or build new skills, which can cost time and money. This can be particularly frustrating for Millennial women survivors who are burdened by student loan debt and have degrees and training they want to use. New employees are also more vulnerable to layoffs (does the phrase “last hired, first fired” ring a bell?). Coming on as new staff might also mean a cut in pay as survivors must move up the ranks at their new workplace. These factors strip away survivor’s wealth as they attempt to make up for lost time, money, and opportunities.
While this research is troubling—especially for Millennial women, many of whom are jumpstarting their careers—the effects of sexual harassment are not equally distributed, and a lot of it has to do with women’s other identities. Women of color must grapple with the fact that, for them, sexual harassment is often combined with racism, too. Sexual harassment can be explicitly or implicitly coded using racial stereotypes, which might change the way sexual harassment looks and feels to themselves and bystanders. Historically, women of color have not only been perceived as less likely to be victims of sexual harassment but they are also stigmatized as angry, submissive, or hypersexualized. These stereotypes function to make women of color seem less trustworthy or reliable, putting their reports of sexual harassment under excessive scrutiny. This multifaceted oppression has particular implications for Millennials who are the most diverse living generation in American history.
Socioeconomic class also shapes women’s experiences of sexual harassment. Women working low-wage jobs are more likely to be targets of sexual harassment, and women, especially women of color, are overrepresented in low-wage work. Their reliance on wages and tips to make ends meet often creates a double bind: be sexually harassed (but get a paycheck) or leave the job (and face financial insecurity). Neither of those options are good ones. It turns out, gender and race are dual dimensions through which women of color experience sexual harassment and the wealth gap.
One year later, the #MeToo movement has revealed many things about sexual harassment—the scope of the problem, the systems of power that have kept abusers in positions of power, and the kinds of efforts needed to make lasting social change. It has also brought survivors of all generations together, through their shared experiences of trauma and allyship, to tell stories about how sexual harassment not just impacts their mental health but also their economic security.
#MeToo is an important movement for women of all generations, but especially for Millennials, who are both beneficiaries of its success and active participants in its continued evolution and strength. And while the economic effects of workplace sexual harassment contribute to the wealth gap for all women, the impact on Millennial women is something to note because of where they are in their careers and what other obstacles they face that are unique to this generation—the rise of a precarious gig economy with limited benefits; unruly educational and consumer debt; and child care that costs as much as a mortgage. Despite these barriers to economic security, active participation in and support of #MeToo is one way Millennial women can advocate for themselves and more equitable workplaces.