The Proverbial and Literal Man Keeping you Down
Sexual harassment in blue collar employment
Many of us, arguably the lucky ones, have only started thinking about sexual harassment at the workplace as a systematic problem with the launch of the #MeToo social media campaign in 2017. In the months and years following the first use of “Me Too” in Hollywood, many brave women have stepped up and spoken out about sexual harassment in the media, in entertainment and in corporate culture.
The stage for sexual harassment is often imagined as an office, overlooking any sector of blue collar work. However, sexual harassment is unsurprisingly just as present there as it is in office jobs. The ways in which women employed in manual labour experience sexual harassment are manifold and so are the reasons behind unsafe work environments. In the following, let us look closer at three industries that show different structures of sexual harassment in manual labor: the construction industry, hospitality, and domestic work.
Construction work is the example of an industry traditionally classified as “mens’ work”. And sexual harassment seems to be so deeply rooted in the culture of that industry that the most commonly associated representation of a construction worker in film and media is a man catcalling a woman on the street.
Even though this is obviously a stereotype, it shows how very male, with a nodge to the predatory, our sociocultural image of a construction worker is.
And indeed, the proportion of women in this sector is small: From 5.5% in Africa and South America, to 7.5% in Europe, 11.7% in North America, and finally 14.6% in Asia, women globally make up a small part of construction workers.
Whether the industry is male dominated because women do not want to work in construction or whether women do not want to work in construction because the industry is male dominated is a chicken-and-egg question. However, an undeniable fact is that those women that do work in construction suffer from the fact that the industry is male-dominated.
A study by the European Commission has shown that women who are employed in male-dominated workplaces are more likely to experience sexual harassment. And indeed, female construction workers report about “daily harassment” from coworkers in the form of sexual propositions, lewd comments and belittling. It comes to show that sexual harassment, time and time again, is used as a tool both consciously and unconsciously to bully women out of work spaces which society deems them unfit to fill. Maybe that can give us some idea about the previous chicken-and-egg question too.
Hospitality is at first glance not a male-dominated sector. In fact, many jobs, such as waiting staff, catering services, and bar staff are more commonly held by women in many countries. However, this industry still has a grave sexual harassment problem: a British study showed that 67% of women employed in hospitality reported having experienced sexual harassment, 15% more than in other industries.
Sexual comments from customers such as “are you on the desert menu? Because you look yummy” are a daily occurrence for many waitresses and with Covid-19 many have reported being tipped less because customers claimed a masked face was not worth paying as much.
Apart from the idea that the customer is always right, the reason for the high exposure to sexual harassment in hospitality can be found in the hirarchies of the industry: while women make up a majority of those in contact with the customers, manager positions are still mostly held by men. One of the most common reasons not to report instances of sexual harassment is fear of a negative impact on one’s employee status. Many women employed in the service industry have insecure employment contracts, increasing this fear.
The fact that “women with irregular or precarious employment contracts [...] are more susceptible to sexual harassment” is even more visible in our last example: women employed in domestic work, more than in any other sector, are often employed through illegal or abusive contracts. Many economies rely on systems that encourage foreign workers and immigrants to take up those positions and enjoy less legal protection from the state.
And thus, women employed in domestic work are extremely exposed, facing harassment, abuse, violence and rape. Political will to protect these vulnerable women seems to lack in most countries. This indifference stems in part from the perverted historical concept that women employed in someone else’s house are seen as servants or subordinates.
Whether in the office or in blue collar employment: sexual harassment is ultimately about power. The power of male colleagues to exclude female construction workers from a safe working environment, the power of managers to expose their female employees in the hospitality sector to harassment from customers, the power of the state to deny female domestic workers basic labour rights.
As with any social issue, poverty and job-insecurity magnifies the problem of sexual harassment by a lot. Unskilled workers are much more at the mercy of customers and managers, leaving them with no choice but to clench their teeth and keep working.
The disregard for the voices of those employed in lower-paying jobs contributes to the fundamental inequality that shapes our society and it covers all topics, including sexual harassment. If we truly want to achieve a world where women and men are treated equally on the job market, we need to listen to the experiences of all workers, including those women who have so far been overlooked.
Written By: Anna Hattig, Research Ambassador at Metta Space
Edited By: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of R & D at Metta Space