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We Need To Do The Math On Sexual Harassment At Work

November 29, 2017, 6:32 PM UTC

The world wakes to another shocking revelation: Matt Lauer has been fired from his job as anchor of NBC’s The Today Show.

According to reports, NBC News received a detailed complaint alleging inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace on Monday night. Lauer has been associated with the show since 1997. And then, he was gone.

According to CNN, the move was not a complete surprise. Many people knew that several outlets, including The New York Times, were working on in-depth investigations of Lauer’s behavior. “For the last two months, @EWagmeister and I have been reporting on a story about serious sexual harassment allegations against Lauer,” tweeted Ramin Setoodeh, the New York Bureau Chief from Variety. “There were multiple victims.”

It is a public blow to one of NBC’s most valuable franchises. But along with the shock comes a public unwinding of Lauer’s work which, to many, now seems suspect after the fact.

Actor Corey Feldman has gone public with allegations of rape and abuse when he was a child in Hollywood; in this interview, Lauer appears to be blaming him for not doing more to help other alleged victims. Lauer has also been accused of treating then-candidates Clinton and Trump very differently during the Commander-In-Chief Forum interviews. And he endured charges of misogyny after he asked the CEO of GM, Mary Barra if she thought she could be both a good mom and a good chief executive.

He now joins a long list of very famous men in media, entertainment, and government, who have been shaping products we readily consume and policies we desperately need, while allegedly operating behind the scenes as betrayers and predators. Yes, we should be very worried about their output.

To parody a famously reductive television sex columnist, the world seems to be asking: Can you be a sexual harasser and still be good at your job?

While it may be instructive to armchair-assess the performance of men who work in public, it’s much harder to quantify the opportunity costs paid by the millions of women who privately abandon promising career paths, or who would face poverty and ruin if they were forced to leave their low-wage jobs. Suffering in silence is expensive. The productivity costs are real. We need to do the math on all of this.

It’s particularly challenging when the industries aren’t glamorous, or if the abusers in question aren’t bold-faced names or SEO hitmakers. But that’s where the worst abuses often occur.

Jocelyn Frye, who studies women’s economic security at the Center for American Progress, recently told The Washington Post, “Low-wage workers are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment.”

Frye’s report, out last week, analyzed a decade’s worth of unpublished sexual harassment complaint data filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). While all genders experience harassment and no industry is spared, her report finds that more than one-quarter of sexual harassment charges were filed in industries with large numbers of service-sector workers, including many low-wage jobs that are often occupied by women. Nearly three-quarters of those charges included an allegation of retaliation.

“Women of color, in particular, often must confront the combined impact of racial, ethnic, and gender prejudice that can result in degrading stereotypes about their sexual mores or availability and increase their risk of being harassed,” she wrote.

Other research from The Restaurant Opportunities Center, a trade group, paints a similar picture. While only seven percent of American women work in the restaurant industry, some 37% of all sexual harassment claims to the EEOC come from the restaurant industry.

From the report: Restaurant workers of all genders experience high levels of harassment from supervisors (66%) and co-workers (80%). Customers account for a whopping 78% of harassers. Two-thirds of all restaurant workers who work for tips are women, making them uniquely vulnerable to this sort of abuse.

The situation for hotel workers is so bad, that Karen Kent, president of the Chicago chapter of the hospitality union UNITE HERE, had to issue panic buttons to housekeepers. She recently told NPR that sixty-three percent of union members surveyed said they had experienced an incident of sexual harassment on the job.

“Hotel housekeepers work alone, cleaning rooms. And oftentimes, there’s a power imbalance between the women who clean them, who are often women of color, immigrants, and guests who have those rooms who pay hundreds of dollars a night. If something happens with the guests, they often can’t be heard or possibly can’t even get away.”

I would argue that there is always a power imbalance, which is why the situation will not be solved without the full support of the powerful. Where to start? In addition to rooting out the behavior and diversifying leadership, it might be nice to actually do the math. There is woefully little data quantifying the cost of harassment to individual women and organizations as a whole. It’s time to make the business case.