Sexual Harassment Comes At A Cost. So Does Speaking Up About It.

And the price is often steepest for the women who can least afford it.

This opinion piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

DAVID MCNEW VIA GETTY IMAGES  Demonstrators at the #MeToo Survivors’ March in Los Angeles last month. 


Demonstrators at the #MeToo Survivors’ March in Los Angeles last month. 

Why do people leave organizations? Reasons often include dealing with bad management, finding a higher paid role elsewhere, or not seeing opportunities for promotion and growth. Workplace sexual harassment is rarely treated as an issue of retention, but it affects morale and career satisfaction at least as drastically as an issue like a difficult boss. 

Sexual harassment is one of the many ways workplaces are a hostile environment for women, pushing them out of organizations and sometimes entire industries. And sexual harassment clearly reflects the power structures that define our society. It exacts a high cost on all individuals and communities, but the price is disproportionately shouldered by women who can least afford it. Women of color and other marginalized women are among those hit hardest by a culture that for generations has turned a blind eye to the epidemic.  

Workplace sexual harassment comes with a steep cost: the cost of participation.

A 2008 study by the American Psychological Association found a correlation between “work withdrawal” and the aftermath of sexual harassment for black women. And in a 2016 survey of the Chicago leisure and hospitality industry, where the majority of women are of color, 49 percent of housekeepers said a guest had answered the door naked or exposed themselves. The most damning result? Of those housekeepers, 56 percent said they did not feel safe returning to work after the incident.

The system was failing these women. Formal report numbers were low, partly because the workers didn’t believe it would make a difference to tell their stories. In fact, 43 percent of respondents said they knew someone who had reported harassment and seen nothing change. Unfortunately, their fears are well-founded. Two-third of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some sort of retaliation, according to a 2003 study cited by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And although times are changing, they might not be changing for women in certain workplaces just yet. 

When marginalized women, particularly women of color, need solidarity, their white sisters don’t often show up.

The outpouring of recent allegations of sexual harassment and subsequent consequences for some perpetrators have prompted many to say we’re in the middle of a turning point in how sexual harassment is dealt with. This is true for some women, but not for all.

When allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men turned Hollywood upside down, Jane Fonda pointed out the obvious: The women speaking out were being listened to because they were famous and white.

Fatima Goss Graves, the CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, agreed, saying, “Class and race and stature play into whether someone is believed.”

Ironically, the #MeToo movement was started a decade ago by black social activist Tarana Burke. It took Alyssa Milano, a white actress, using the hashtag for it to go viral ― among other white women, at least. We’ve seen this before, such as in the racism of the suffragettesFEMEN’s attempts to “liberate” Muslim women despite protests, and the exclusive nature of the Women’s March. When marginalized women, particularly women of color, need solidarity, their white sisters don’t often show up.

We have seen this play out in the cases of black actresses like Lupita Nyong’o and Aurora Perrineau. The implication is clear: Yes, women who allege sexual harassment and other forms of abuse are to be believed ― if they’re the right kind of woman. The majority of women don’t fit that criteria, and those who live and work at the intersections of marginalization ― whether due to race, religion or disability ― are often hardest hit by harassment. Unfortunately, they’re also the least supported. The eventual outcome is dismal.  

For women who are not famous, wealthy or otherwise influential, socioeconomic, cultural and historical disadvantages compound to make it more likely that harassment will occur and less likely that it will be taken seriously. 

The history of sexual exploitation through slavery has created a culture where black women are more likely to be sexually harassed but less likely to be perceived as victims. They are therefore less likely to report, and the cycle continues. Socioeconomic status exacerbates this vulnerability; the majority (58 percent, as of 2013) of low-income families in the U.S. are a racial or ethnic minority. Low-income women of color often lack bargaining power, face language and financial barriers to accessing legal services, and in some cases, are not even aware of their rights. Undocumented workers also face unique additional challenges, as fears of retaliation or deportation may deter them from taking legal action.

It is imperative to acknowledge that efforts to improve the lot of one group of women may only tangentially affect women in other groups.

It is imperative to acknowledge that efforts to improve the lot of one group of women may only tangentially affect women in other groups.

If we are truly interested in building a world where all women feel safe, supported and able to fully participate in their communities and workplaces, we must remember a rising tide does not lift every woman’s boat. We need to be proactive in our advocacy for low-wage women and women of color. We must ensure vulnerable women are provided adequate training, in the language they are most comfortable in, so they understand their rights. The more educated a workplace is, the less likely potential perpetrators will be to think they can get away with harassment. We need to find ways to support these women ― legally, financially, emotionally ― when action is taken.  

The #MeToo moment will be incomplete if it serves only the white, wealthy and otherwise privileged among us. Look around in your own workplace and make sure no woman is being overlooked. Failing to do so will not only affect the women as individuals, but will ultimately damage our workplaces, our communities and our societies. We will all be poorer for it.

Links, Links, Links! 19th February 2013

On whitewashing in Hollywood…

In other words, only white people can stand in for the human race as whole.

No act of sexism is too small to ignore: a good piece about changing cultures.  The interesting link here can be made with changing of any cultures; as the author says, there is no point in half draining the toxic swamp.

Do jerks deserve free speech?

An arresting article on South Korean women who have had plastic surgery.  Apparently, they see it just like putting on makeup…what an interesting cultural difference.

An amazing piece by an young Asian-American lady, who found her niche when she always thought she was an outlier… beautiful personal essay: Outsider / Insider.  Also from Rookie Mag, a beautiful piece about losing your original culture when you are brought up in a different country.

Stop and realise…these are our good old days.  We are living them now! How exciting is that?

The difference between being alone, and lonely.

A reflective piece on being an expatriate and what it is like when you come home. Leaving Australia for good.

From a more technical point of view, how will this non conventional gas boom affect US economics and politics and the rest of the world?

Enjoy your week!

Great Speeches…but then what?

Anyone who has been paying even the slightest attention to Australian politics for the last day or so would know about Julia Gillard’s impassioned performance in parliament yesterday, labelling the opposition leader Tony Abbott as sexist and misogynist.

The reaction in the media and social spheres have been interesting indeed, and worth analysing to determine underlying agendas.  The speech has gotten international acclaim and praise from around the Western world.

Firstly, let it be said that there is no doubt that is was a fantastic and riveting monologue.  I love a well delivered speech, and the great leaders of in the past have often been lauded for their ability to rouse audiences and crowds into frenzies with addresses that stir the soul.  This was definitely one such example for Australia – especially given the performance of our parliament generally over the couple of years.

Another part of the reason that the speech was so well received was that the Prime Minister finally spoke about the issue of sexism when she hadn’t really (to my knowledge) publically broached it before, and seemed genuine in doing so. She cuttingly pointed out a number of instances where Tony Abbott made statements that were clearly sexist, highlighting  the entrenched (and quite possibly subconscious) culture of sexism that exists in the highest levels of government.  I believe we live in a relatively patriarchal society and though that is changing, sexism will continue to exist in implicit and explicit forms.  For this to truly shift, the culture must be acknowledged and brought to account; this is what the Prime Minister was doing, and this is to be applauded.

Mama Mia rightfully said:

It was an erudite, honest speech on the sexism that has repeatedly been levelled against her by her opponents, led by Tony Abbott, with language including “ditch the bitch” and “make an honest woman of her”. To miss that is to completely miss the point.

The Prime Minister’s speech had about as much to do with Peter Slipper as a superb double-twist-summersault dive does a diving board. The Slipper case was nothing but a catalyst for a more important debate. It was, frankly, long overdue.


I believe the timing of the speech, the way in which the Prime Minister has conducted herself since the Question Time session and the overt way in which she framed the debate was a cunning political move indeed.

Why? Well who, in all the hullabaloo, is paying attention to the now resigned Peter Slipper? Where did that conversation go?  I don’t necessarily think it was fair of most of the mainstream media to blast the PM as they did, however I do think they were right in pointing out that this was a brilliant political pivot on behalf of the PM and Labour.

As with all things in politics, perhaps it is best to look at the facts.

Yes, a brilliant and inspiring speech was made.  This has been done often in history, often to very powerful results.

The difference in history however, is such speeches are often followed up by some form of action, or a call for action.  Without action or follow up, great speeches turn into riveting…rhetoric.

I am yet to see any “calls for action”. Perhaps I missed the memo.

“Well done” is always better than “Well said”.


Sidenote: Call me cynical, but I continue to be frustrated by the reactionary nature of our government.  They say bad times breed good policy…but I don’t know if we are there yet.  Interestingly enough, did you know that Indonesians (by and large) tend to think of our politics as unstable? Weird right…

…but then I guess with “banning live exports after a TV show” and “putting in a rotational US base at Darwin without consultation”…all happening within a few months of each other, one begins to understand why…


Sidenote 2: Does the nature of the response to her speech (“a ferocious personal attack”, “aggressive”) suggest that even the response to an impassioned speech is sexist?  If it were a man talking in a similar fashion, would those views still be held so negatively? Hmm…