Thanks for the Spotlight Hollywood. Can You Pass the Mic to Everyday Women?

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Weinstein, Spacey, Louis C.K. The names we’re used to seeing in bright lights and movie credits are now associated with a culture of sexual harassment and assault that has been running rife in the social circles of America’s famous. In the past few weeks dozens of women have reported men in Hollywood for harassing or sexually assaulting them, and the repercussions for the accused have been unprecedented. Many of the famous men who have been fired on the basis of these recent reports had previously been linked to such behavior—in some cases, for years. What’s seems to be different in the current cultural climate is that victims of sexual assault or harassment are now being believed.

Why? Perhaps it’s because, this time, the revelations came from names as glitzy and well-recognized as the accused. Judd, Paltrow, McGowan, Jolie—award-winning women the world has seen on red carpets and silver screens—told their stories of being harassed on the job and the world listened. But when Tarana Burke tried a decade ago to highlight the ubiquity of sexual violence in the lives of everyday women, those stories barely caused a ripple. Though we are grateful to the brave women of Hollywood for shining a spotlight on workplace sexual harassment, it says something about our society that we didn’t listen until celebrities shared those stories.

 

What of the undocumented immigrant picking fruit to support herself and her family, who has to live with the very real fear of being raped on the job? Does she not deserve to be heard and believed? What of the middle-aged woman earning $10 an hour to clean hotel rooms, who’s been inappropriately touched by a guest who frequently patronizes her place of work? Who will listen to her? What of the 20-something college student who depends on customer tips to supplement her $2.13 an hour tipped minimum wage? What recourse does she have when a customer pairs tips with sexually suggestive comments about her body? Of the sexual harassment complaints the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission receives from workers, more than 37 percent are from restaurant workers alone. Why hasn’t there been a wide-ranging response to their experiences and those of the millions of other women who do the jobs we all depend on? And if not now, when will there be one?

Credit: Crain’s Chicago Business
The number of sexual harassment claims the EEOC has received from retail and food service workers, compared to those from other industries.

 

Restaurant jobs feature heavily in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of America’s ten lowest paid occupations, and it should go without saying that low-paid workers are particularly vulnerable to workplace abuse of all kinds. Imagine how difficult it would be to speak out against your manager’s inappropriate touches when you’re already struggling to pay rent, and you need every hour on the schedule you can get. For scores of women living paycheck to paycheck, reporting workplace sexual harassment often has to be weighed against the prospect of losing financial security. Harassment isn’t heinous only because it damages victims’ sense of safety; it also fundamentally affects women’s ability to earn the income, professional development, and financial security that should be accessible to all working people.

Some have questioned why the women making reports now didn’t say something earlier. Many of the actresses who have come out about their experiences with Weinstein feared that he would use his immense influence to end careers they had dreamed of and worked hard for. For millions of women working for low wages in retail, food service, and office cubicles across the country, that trepidation can be even larger. Reporting their workplace harassment could affect their ability to feed their children, to pay off student loans, to keep the heat on in their apartment, and to get another comparable job.

That’s not supposition. For one woman who shared her story with Women Employed, that’s exactly what happened. An employee at a manufacturing plant for almost ten years, she made a report to HR about a coworker who kept touching her inappropriately. A couple weeks later, she was laid off and he was transferred to another location.

“I had the highest seniority, low attendance points, knew and could do every job in the department as well as anyone. I have reason to believe my job was not eliminated,” she told WE.

Many of us are rightfully energized by the staying-power and unique unfolding of the current conversation about sexual harassment, and we have the headline-grabbing names which propelled it onto newspaper front pages to thank for that. But if this moment is to truly herald a change in culture and workplaces, it’s important that it elevates those victims whose silence has been enforced by their economic insecurity just as strongly as those voices bound by million-dollar non-disclosure agreements.

Originally published December 2017 on HuffingtonPost.com 

The Gender Wage Gap Is Wider For Black Women, So Why Aren’t We Leading The Conversation?

April 4th marked Equal Pay Day, a symbolic measure of how far into 2017 women had to work to earn what a man did in 2016. But that date doesn’t really apply to black women. For us and many other women of color, the pay gap in America is a lot wider. While white women make an average of 75 cents for every dollar a white man does, black women make about 63 cents. That makes our Equal Pay Day July 31st, more than 6 months into the new year. In even starker terms: over a 40-year career, black women will lose $840,000 due to the wage gap. Despite that devastating figure, black women’s groups haven’t traditionally led the fight to close the wage gap. Why aren’t we playing a larger role in speaking out when pay inequity hits us so much harder?

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President Barack Obama signs executive actions to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws for women. 

Maybe it’s because achieving equal pay feels like just another uphill battle, and black women are already too familiar with those. We pursue higher education relentlessly—with ever-increasing enrollment rates in America’s colleges—and we’re breadwinners more often than not, with over 70 percent of black mothers reporting that they bring home most of the earnings. Still we’re confronted with systematic inequities that, like the wage gap, are often linked to both our race and our gender.

 

But as Tamika Mallory, co-chair of the massively successful Women’s March, recently said, “We have to prioritize us when the rest of the world will not. If no one is showing up for us, we must show up for ourselves.” Make no question about it, black women show up when it comes to the issues impacting our communities and our loved ones. Now it’s time for us to show up alongside our sisters in the struggle: women of all races and from all walks of life with whom we can share strength in similarities and give support where we differ. If the Women’s March in January showed us anything, it’s that we who support gender equity must work together if there’s any hope of achieving meaningful change.

The push for equal pay is a great place to start. It impacts all women, and it’s a cause we can all come together around. Women in the workplace are often dealt a ‘motherhood penalty’ for having a child (research shows they’re seen as having lower competence and commitment, which directly impacts their chances of being paid well), while men are more likely to see a bump in their earnings after becoming a father. Other contributing factors include the disproportionate representation of women (and women of color) in lower-paying jobs, the way women approach and are perceived during salary negotiations, and plain-old gender discrimination.

But we can combat the wage gap, and women’s advocacy groups are already leading the way. In Illinois, where my organization Women Employed is based, we have spearheaded legislation that would ban employers from asking job applicants about their previous wages. For a black mother who took time off work to care for her newborn child, that law could mean the difference between an unfair salary following her into a new job, or a fair wage based on her qualifications. The ‘No Salary History’ bill has already passed in Illinois, we’re just waiting for the governor to sign it into law. It’s a good start to addressing a multi-faceted issue.

The best way to ensure any strategy to close the wage gap works for all women is to have different women’s experiences included in the conversation. Though historically the feminist movement has not always been a space where women of color were made to feel welcome, it should be clear to every woman that continuing to be divided will doom us all. Women’s issues are also black women’s issues. So, let’s take our seat at the table.

 

Originally published July 2017 at HuffingtonPost.com