Sexual harassment is in the news again. This week, the New York Times published an investigation revealing “previously undisclosed allegations against Mr. [Harvey] Weinstein stretching over nearly three decades.” Weinstein, an Oscar-winning movie producer and one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, apparently used his position in the entertainment industry to abuse women, overwhelmingly young women new to the movie business.
The story details abusive behavior — such as Weinstein “badgering” women into giving him naked massages or asking if they would watch him shower — that suggest a man who got off not so much on sex as on dominating women who he suspected were powerless to fight back. That he got away with it for decades, and that he is only being outed now, as his power is fading — slowly, to be sure — suggests he was right.
But there’s another thread that comes through, one of women helping other women protect themselves in a situation where the power differential between Weinstein and themselves was staggering. We read of Lauren O’Connor writing a memo denouncing her boss’s conduct. We see Ashley Judd tell the Times reporters, “Women have been talking about Harvey amongst ourselves for a long time, and it’s simply beyond time to have the conversation publicly.” We are informed that “one woman advised a peer to wear a parka when summoned for duty as a layer of protection against unwelcome advances.” And we get anonymous quotes, from women employed or formerly employed by Weinstein, confirming the allegations.
In an era when so many of us know how widespread workplace sexual harassment is, it’s important to take in the details of a rare case of a harasser being outed, publicly and with on-the-record quotes from his accusers. This is the exception to the rule, which is that powerful men like Weinstein get to harass and assault women until they die, no matter how many people in their industries know about it.
But having digested these details, we — or at least those of us concerned with fighting these injustices — arrive at a question: What do we do about it? We live in an era where “feminism … is cool,” at least according to those liberal feminists whose politics fit comfortably with feminism-as-brand, and yet sexual harassment, in the workplace and without, continues unabated.
When the article was published, lots of women took to Twitter to tell their stories of workplace sexual harassment. But the proud feminist tradition of conscious raising — albeit this time in its 2017 form, tweeting — cannot stop workplace sexual harassment. It’s a way to make those few of us unfortunate enough to use Twitter feel less alone, and to educate our male counterparts about the thorny persistence of harassment in our supposed feminist age. But when it comes to stopping that harassment, its effect is negligible at best.
So, again, what can we do to reduce workplace sexual harassment?
To begin answering that, let me start with a few snapshots of my own.
- Age 17: during my first shift as a waitress, a customer leaves me his number instead of a tip — I am an embarrassed kid, so I don’t tell anyone
- Age 20: within my first week of a new job as a barista, one of the coffee shop’s regulars talks to me for the entirety of my lunch break. When I bring it up with my young female manager, she responds, “Oh, I have one of those guys too. Nothing we can do about it. By the way, if the guy who insists on talking to me comes in and asks for me, say I’m busy.”
- Age 20: I ask a professor for a recommendation to graduate school. He responds by asking me if I have a boyfriend. I do not reply, to that email, or ever again. I do not get into a PhD program that year.
- Age 21: during my first shift as a hostess at a restaurant, one of the bartenders propositions me multiple times. When I tell the manager, seeking advice, he responds, “Well, you were hired to be looked at.” I walk out mid-dinner rush that same day, and never go back.
- Age 22: I am a new PhD student. One of the other students informs me to avoid X, a male professor. “He touches the female students he works with, like, a lot.” I change what I plan to focus on in the program, so as to avoid working with him.
What do these stories have in common? Beyond the obvious — they’re all cases of workplace sexual harassment — in each case, I acted alone, and the action I took worsened my life. I walked away from jobs, never to return even for the paycheck I was owed. I reneged on substantial intellectual goals to avoid harassers. I suffered, doubly.
I don’t share these stories for the purpose of consciousness-raising, although if reading them makes you feel less alone, or conveys to you how often workplace sexual harassment happens, good. I write them to show how much we stand to lose by trying to resolve sexual harassment on our own.
Rather than trying to fight back against a harasser on her own, the safest bet for a women is to find a vehicle to fight the issue collectively. Not only can this multiply the power on her side — if she can only do so much on her own, her power multiplies with each colleague who stands beside her — but it protects her. Speaking out about harassment is risky when your job is on the line, but if you speak as a “we,” there is no “I” who can be identified. Sure, if the harasser knows he only harassed me, he will know I am the one who told people. But even then, if my coworkers commit to backing me up, and taking action if I face repercussions for speaking up, it becomes much harder for that harasser to win. He can fire me — or get me fired if he isn’t the boss — but he can’t fire all of us.
The above scenario is a type of collective action, one that is closer to the informal side of the spectrum that runs from informal to formal action: workers confront a harasser, threatening to take action, be it direct action or legal action, if harassment doesn’t end. It’s a step beyond the actions we read of in the Times story, of individual women warning other women of Weinstein’s actions, although the many women quoted or interviewed anonymously about Weinstein are taking informal collective action too, albeit of a type that shields them from the risk of repercussions (I hope). It’s an important step, and I have seen it stop harassment. Workers threatening to walk off the job if one of the bosses doesn’t act on information of sexual harassment can force that boss to act, if solely to keep the shop running smoothly.
But on the other end of the spectrum is an even more effective strategy: formal collective action. When it comes to the workplace, the most common vehicle for this step is a union. Language about “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment is often built into union contracts, providing a clear mandate for workers to act if harassment occurs. No longer are you “a bitch who can’t keep her mouth shut”; in a union, you’re adhering to the language everyone agreed upon.
When I was part of a union organizing drive among graduate students at my university last year, this argument — that a union is our best shot at combating sexual harassment and assault — was the most effective one I had when speaking to other grad students. According to a nationwide survey by the Association of American Universities, 44 percent of female graduate students report having been sexually harassed. 22 percent of female graduate students said this harassment came from a faculty member, while 16 percent said it came from a teacher or adviser. Multiple women, particularly those who work in the hard sciences — where funding comes directly from one faculty member (a PI) who oversees a lab of grad students — confessed horror stories of sexual harassment by their PIs, the stories often prefaced with “I haven’t told anyone else about what’s happening.” Some of these women became our most effective organizers.
And when it came to speaking to their male colleagues, no argument was more persuasive. While an engineering student might not be concerned with his wages (“My stipend’s good, and I’ll be making six figures in no time!”), he almost always could be won to supporting the union when I told him that “some of your female colleagues don’t have it so good, and they need this union.”
While sexual harassment is not a “bread-and-butter” issue in traditional union parlance, the ability of a union to provide a formal collective body that can file grievances over harassment, and promise to back up those experiencing harassment, is an invaluable argument for why union rights are women’s rights (among the many, many arguments for why unions are a feminist issue). Judging by reports from other graduate union campaigns, I’m not the only one who finds this an effective argument.
That power of a supervisor to scare a worker into silence about the harassment she’s experiencing? That exists in every sector, not just academia. For example, a recent survey reveals that 40 percent of female fast food workers experience sexual harassment in the workplace. A staggering number, it is significantly lower than the 70 percent of female restaurant workers Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) reported as experiencing workplace sexual harassment. Importantly, 42 percent of those surveyed in the fast food industry who experience harassment feel forced to accept that harassment because they can’t afford to lose their jobs. More than one-in-five of these women report that, after raising the issue, their employer took negative action, including cutting their hours, changing them to a less desirable schedule, giving them additional duties, and being denied a raise.
In other words, they were punished for speaking up. So it’s no surprise these workers are fighting in ever-greater numbers for not only a raise, but a union. Any of us who want to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace should be fighting for those protections too, no matter what type of work we do.
Note: an abridged version of this essay ran in Jacobin this week. It originated as a paywalled post on my Patreon, but given that I’ve seen union folks, especially those in the grad union movement, sharing this piece as a means to talk about sexual harassment, I’m posting it here so the full version — which has more specifics about grad unions — is accessible to everyone. If you want to support my writing, subscribe here.