Unequal pay and sexual harassment are linked. They are part of the same story of sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny, wherein women’s work—and women themselves—are undervalued, or simply not valued at all. Power imbalance is at the heart of both issues. As Lilly Ledbetter, whose successful pay discrimination lawsuit then led to legislation bearing her name, wrote in the New York Times: “Sexual harassment isn’t about sex, just like pay discrimination isn’t just about pay. Both are about power.”
That’s why it’s heartening to have women in Congress—one of our country’s true centers of power—who are dedicated to leading the way on policy solutions for these interconnected issues, including today’s introduction by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Katherine Clark (D-MA) of anti-harassment legislation, the BE HEARD Act. This bill is a comprehensive approach to addressing discrimination, including workplace sexual harassment. Together with other recent women-led legislative fights in Congress, these bills center, and value, women.
The Interplay of Harassment and Pay
Harassment impacts pay in multiple ways. Some men may prey on women who are paid less—knowing that, due to financial insecurity, they depend on their paychecks more heavily and are therefore less likely to risk their jobs by complaining about their treatment. The violence can also flow from general misogyny into unequal pay, in that men who may in general value women less than they do men may not only harass women, but also pay them less.
In many cases, women choose to leave a job over facing the social and professional ramifications of reporting someone who has harassed or assaulted them—someone with whom, oftentimes, they would be forced to continue working during and even after any response that her report might trigger (of course, frequently such a report triggers no response at all—or worse, a blaming of the victim). And once out of a job, they have to start over at a new place of work, which often entails beginning at the bottom of a business’s or organization’s pay ladder. Others may have their job performance and/or health impacted, due to the repercussions of trauma incurred from their experiences of harassment, which often includes feeling disempowered. Finally, women may avoid higher-paying, male-dominated industries where they are more likely to experience harassment.
Ultimately, harassment has both indirect and direct impacts on wages that together contribute to the imbalance in pay and power between men and women in the workplace.
Ultimately, harassment has both indirect and direct impacts on wages that together contribute to the imbalance in pay and power between men and women in the workplace. Amelia Harnish, writing in Refinery 29, has labeled this the “predator tax.”
When Race, Gender, and Money Intersect
Racial discrimination also plays a significant role here, combining with gender discrimination to make the situation especially precarious for women of color. As Jocelyn Frye writes: “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. Furthermore, women—particularly women of color—are more likely to work lower-wage jobs, where power imbalances are often more pronounced and where fears of reprisals or losing their jobs can deter victims from coming forward.”
Discrimination against other identities that may intersect with race and gender is just as prevalent in this story: This includes LGBTQ+ people, women with disabilities, immigrants, poorly paid people, and those perceived as “older.” Harassers may be more likely to target women who are already vulnerable as a result of other factors, just as employers may pay less as a result of those same factors.
Legislation That Is Up to the Task
Sexual harassment, sex discrimination in pay, and most of the other forms of discrimination mentioned in this commentary are prohibited by law via Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act, and other anti-discrimination laws. However, challenges to enforcing these laws, as well as gaps in discrimination law and loopholes and exceptions in the statutes, generally mean that harassment, discrimination, and unequal pay remain serious problems with both interconnected origins and interwoven consequences. That’s why legislative efforts to close those loopholes and strengthen these laws are so important.
The BE HEARD Act—introduced today—does that important work in a number of groundbreaking ways. It expands who is covered by the federal anti-discrimination laws to include domestic workers, farmworkers, and others who work for small businesses, as well as independent contractors and interns. It clarifies protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It also improves enforcement of the law and ensures that survivors of harassment can access the justice system and the broader supports they need. It joins other anti-discrimination legislation—including the bipartisan EMPOWER Act (S.574/S. 575 and H.R. 1521) introduced by Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Representatives Lois Frankel (D-FL) and John Katko (R-NY)—to enhance current law by protecting women’s voices, ensuring that no one has to sign a non-disparagement or non-disclosure agreement as a condition of employment and making it easier to report harassment by establishing a confidential tip line.
In addition to these bill introductions, the House of Representatives has been moving related bills that have already made their way to Congress. On Thursday, the House passed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, H.R. 1585, sponsored by Representatives Karen Bass (D-CA) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA). It is a crucial and comprehensive bill that funds programs that address violence directed at women, including domestic abuse and sexual assault. On March 27, the House of Representatives passed the Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 7), sponsored by Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) (and Senator Murray in the Senate—S.270), which would strengthen equal pay laws to protect against pay discrimination. These are solutions to unequal pay and sexual harassment whose time has come. We can’t address one without the other.
These are solutions to unequal pay and sexual harassment whose time has come. We can’t address one without the other.
As Tarana Burke, Ai-jen Poo, and Monica Ramirez wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, “Gender-based injustice is pervasive, and comes in all forms and sizes.” And just as the predation of women reaches every corner of our public and private lives, the predator tax hurts not just women, but everyone—including families, communities, and businesses.
More than a year after #MeToo roiled the rich and famous in Hollywood and beyond, there remains more work to be done to create workspaces where women are completely safe, valued, and fairly paid. Sexual harassment and pay equity are closely linked—especially for Americans who are young, poorly paid, and/or non-white. Many of the women in Congress today get this—and are taking steps to address both.
The author thanks Molly Bangs for her contributions to this commentary.
This commentary was supported by the Women’s Economic Justice Project, a NoVo Foundation-funded initiative sponsored by the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Cover Photo: McDonald’s workers are joined by other activists as they march toward the company’s headquarters to protest sexual harassment at the fast food chain’s restaurants in Chicago, Illinois. Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images