As the media published its epic investigation which exposed nearly three decades of sexual harassment and predation by the once invincible Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and the powerful enablers who enforced a culture of silence, women have come forward in jaw-dropping numbers to state their personal experiences of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace.

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A great number is still sickened by the election of a president who openly spoke about grabbing women by the genitals simply because he could, since an opening to do more than march in pink hats and wring their hands. They are now explaining the stories of past abuses via social media and to journalists and will continue to do so as their disclosures lead daily to the outing and termination of men who previously were untouchable in order of their celebrity or status.

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The housecleaning on Capitol Hill just this week is the latest proof of that. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, a great star in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and Michigan Rep. John Conyers, a civil rights icon and the longest-serving member of Congress, announced retirement plans which are under pressure from colleagues and the public. Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona has given his resignation after female staffers revealed his shocking request that they become surrogates to solve infertility issues he and his wife were facing.

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As a platform for demanding answerability and shattering the taboos that isolate victims, the #MeToo movement named by Time magazine as Person of the Year for 2017  has been a powerful tool for change. It leaves no doubt that decades into integrating women more fully into the American workforce, we still struggle with providing basic safety and dignity to all employees. According to a recent report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 60% of women experience harassment at work, including sexist insults and sexually suggestive behaviour.

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The major chunk of this degrading and often unlawful conduct is not reported to employers or to a legal authority. Despite the statements that women are hypersensitive to harmless behaviour or engage in so-called witch hunts, empirical data show that the public view of harassment is truly the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Harassment is a part of the  American workplace.

While the media has given the maximum attention to the unlawful behaviour of high-profile harassers like politicians, actors, and executives, sexual harassment is even more present for women in the largely invisible low-wage sector of the economy. Women comprise two-thirds of all low-wage workers, and diverse factors make this population more vulnerable to abuse. They have fewer resources to opt for legal help when faced with unlawful discrimination, are less financially able to leave an abusive workplace, and in some cases, their immigration status may lead to a powerful deterrent to reporting.

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In industries with a strong gender hierarchy, such as hospitality and agricultural labour, harassment is widely being regarded as part of the work culture. Many women in low-income jobs risk more than psychological trauma to say “Me too.” They also risk fundamental security for themselves and their families.

In legal terms, low-wage workers are more susceptible to retaliation for speaking out about harassment and assault. Federal law prohibits retaliation for opposing sex discrimination, as do employee protections in many states, but these laws have some negative aspects. They do not apply to all workplaces, for instance, and some set high burdens of proof.

Most important for low-wage workers, these laws act as a deterrent only to the degree that harassers know their targets might actually be able to use them. Even the most robust statute is useless to the employee who does not know it exists, lacks the means to bring a complaint under it, or who cannot afford to endure the retaliation, including unemployment, for the time it takes to undergo the processing.

As recent events make clearly plain, harassers and assaulters who do not face consequences prevail and often escalate, their abusive attitude. For low-wage employees who face unexpected obstacles to bringing a formal action, employer policies are the first line, sometimes the only line, of protection from this unlawful conduct.

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It is imperative that low-wage sector employers, in particular, develop anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies that are clear, meaningful and rigorously considered. The principle of Title VII  that your sex should not determine whether you are entitled to earn a living — should not be there only for workers who are able to quit a hostile work environment when it becomes toxic, or who are “fortunate” enough to be targeted by a well-known individual.

The #MeToo movement is an exceptional turning point in American culture, bringing actual force to anti-discrimination principles that have been a part of our formal legal system for more than 50 years. A genuine commitment to gender equality actually asks that we take into account the reality of women in the low-wage economy, and make sure that the sea change underway shifts their lives for the better, as well. As we find the ability to say #MeToo, we must also find the courage to ask #WhoElse.

 

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