We haven’t come a long way, baby: Sexual harassment in the workplace

Stuart Shapiro welcomes Professor Jocelyn Crowley to EJB Talks this week. Dr. Crowley is an expert on policy issues related to gender, including child support, gray divorce, and father’s rights. They open their discussion with how the Me-Too movement, which sprang up in response to high-profile sexual harassment scandals involving Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes, exposed the prevalence of abhorrent behavior in U.S. workplaces. This trend led Dr. Crowley to focus her current research on sexual harassment and how its effects are particularly felt by a large number of independent contractors in the often glamorized but incredibly unprotected fashion industry. The two also discuss the misconception that the pandemic lessened exposure to sexual harassment in remote work situations and how those who work in the service sector have reported increased incidents of sexual harassment. Looking towards the future, they also talk about possible policy considerations and what can be done to bring more protections to vulnerable individuals. 

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to EJB Talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the Associate Dean of the Faculty at the Bloustein School, and the purpose of this podcast is to highlight the work of my colleagues and our alumni in the fields of public policy, planning, and health, and how they are making the world, the country and New Jersey a better place.

Today we’re speaking with my good friend and colleague from the public policy program, Professor Jocelyn Crowley. Welcome to the podcast, Jocelyn.

Jocelyn Crowley
It’s great to be here. Thank you.

Stuart Shapiro
You’ve studied a wide range of issues related to gender, including child support, gray divorce, father’s rights, and now sexual harassment? How do you choose your research areas?

Jocelyn Crowley
So I get this question a lot. And what I always go back to is my childhood, and the experiences that I went through as a child growing up in a single parent family. This was way back in the day in the 1970s. And at that point, in time, when my parents split up, there simply was not a good system of child support in place. We had to look at the resources of our relatives to help us financially when my father did not support us, as well as look at governmental programs to see if they could help us as well. And so this fed my passion in terms of looking at issues that affect primarily families, single parent families, and with a focus on women, as well.

So throughout my career, as you know, I’ve looked at Child Support child custody, I spent some time looking at how women who are working for pay are able to balance their work lives as well as their childcare responsibilities, which was very, very difficult for my mother at the time. And then I spent a couple of years looking at divorce after the age of 50, and the ramifications of divorce for men versus women. And that was a really, really interesting project. And most recently, I have spent some time looking at the issue of sexual harassment and what we can do to improve the lives of mostly women in the workforce today and protect them from that type of abuse.

Stuart Shapiro
Well, we’d love to do a podcast on each and every one of those subjects, but we’ll stick with your current work right now. And particularly because it couldn’t really be more timely or relevant. Certainly over the past few years, we’ve had a renewing of attention, I mean, I remember sort of the attention after the Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas hearings in the early 90s. And then the focus changed and it moved away, but certainly with the, with the growth of the me to movement and other factors, how has attention been refocused on this issue? And what are the ramifications of that?

Jocelyn Crowley
So I really think that this story took off and exploded as a result of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein in 2017. So for a period of time, there were several new stories that were coming out on a daily, on a weekly basis on making new allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and how he treated mostly female actors who were attempting to get roles in his movies or attempting to move up in terms of that particular profession. And I think that particular moment in American entertainment life where people are familiar with the stars, so familiar with the actors, brought a lot of attention to it. I would also say that someone I consider a real hero, Gretchen Carlson at Fox News, at the time came out and said; Listen, this is the culture of what’s happening in a major news organization. And she had the guts to tape record what was happening with respect to Roger Ailes and his behavior towards his female employees and really started to get the ball rolling there.

And so we had sort of this entertainment world that was being turned on its head, we had this news organization world that was being turned on its head. And what I really saw was that previous behavior, where everybody just kind of looked the other way, now, all of a sudden, we all started to say no, this is a serious issue. This is an issue that’s affecting primarily women. And we’re looking at it play out in these really spectacular forms where we know all of the players. But it’s happening so much at the grassroots level as well. People employed in everyday jobs. Mostly women, again employed in everyday jobs with nowhere near as much power as these folks in Hollywood and folks in the media. And feminists largely took this strong stance and said, we’ve got to start to hold people accountable, not only in these worlds of entertainment and news but also for women working in everyday jobs, white-collar jobs, blue-collar jobs across the country. And so I really saw this movement take off around 2017. And that got me interested in studying the experiences of a variety of women who have experienced sexual harassment on the job.

Stuart Shapiro
Now, we’re in this weird moment right now, right? For the past year, and three months, we’ve all been remote.

Jocelyn Crowley
Yeah.

Stuart Shapiro
That clearly changes workplace dynamics, when you’re not with the person. How do you expect this issue to resurface as we return to in-person work? And some people won’t be returning to in-person work, and maybe this is a factor in their decisions regarding whether to work remotely or work in person. What are your thoughts on that?

Jocelyn Crowley
So definitely COVID changed everything. And in terms of my research, my initial project was that I was going to go out and look at the sexual harassment experiences of hotel housekeepers in New York City, and talk to them about how they were doing their job, how they were harassed, and the protections that were being put into place to help them. For example, in New York City, if you’re in a unionized hotel, hotel housekeepers get a panic button. So if you’re going into a room, and there’s primarily a man who’s there by himself, and he sexually harasses the housekeeper, she could press the panic button and get help and attention. COVID changed that research plan, which often happens with research.

But what I started to think about a little bit more broadly, during COVID were two things. First of all, simply because you’re in a remote environment you’re logging in, you’re in a zoom environment, or you’re on a call does not mean that sexual harassment goes away. In fact, it can take a variety of forms. And I think we’ve seen some of these things covered in the media where there are sexually harassing incidents that happen over zoom, for example. And women are still subjected to that subjected to language subjected to images that they don’t want to see and that they don’t deserve to see. So I sort of want to push back against this fallacy that a remote environment is necessarily a safer environment.

And the second point that I’d like to make is that for a lot of women workers, the frontline women workers, as well as women working in the service industries, there have been a couple of articles that have said that sexual harassment actually got worse during the pandemic. And I’d like to give you an example of that. So we know that as restaurants have started to open up all across the United States, you know, we’re all looking forward to this, you know, being back in the real world once again, and so forth. But during the pandemic waitstaff, for example, working in New York City restaurants, had to serve their customers, and often times the restaurants require that they wear masks in doing so. So there were a series of articles and reports done about the waitstaff, their experience in dealing with customers during this time. And they actually reported that sexual harassment got worse.

So for example, a waitperson who happened to be a woman would come up to a table with her mask and ask for the order. Oftentimes, men who were customers at this particular restaurant would say, “Take off your mask, so I can see how much to tip you.” So women felt that they were stuck. They needed to have, and this is the position that women are often finding themselves, that they have to play along because in the restaurant business, all of your, most of your salary is based on tips. And if you turn off your male customer, you are not going to get tipped. So we saw this type of behavior increase as well.

We also saw this happen on some of my research that looks a little bit at female Uber, and Lyft drivers. Male customers getting into these vehicles, asking to see the faces of their female drivers in order to determine their rating, which is very important for an Uber driver in order to succeed, as well as how much I’m going to tip you. This also became very, very prominent, as well. So COVID didn’t necessarily make things better.

Stuart Shapiro
Oh, I see, that’s very interesting
.

Jocelyn Crowley
I think it exposed a lot of the harassment that was already going on at the time. And as we transition back, perhaps to more in-person meetings, I think that we need to think about the harassment as it occurs in its many different forums.

Stuart Shapiro
That’s fascinating, and, of course, disturbing and unfortunate. Now, you talked about, the hotel workers, you talked about how many of them have union protections. Certainly there plenty of individuals without union protections, and these include independent contractors that I know you’ve been working on more recently. Can you talk a little bit about the precarious situation that independent contractors find themselves in?

Jocelyn Crowley
Sure. So this was really strong motivation for me. In the United States, we know that an ever-increasing number of workers in the United States are classified as independent contractors. That means that they don’t have the traditional benefits, as well as protections from discrimination and abuse that employees, for example, might have with respect to their employers. So for example, in a traditional employer-employee relationship, if you have a case of sexual harassment, you can bring it before the EEOC if you want to. Typically workplace organizations have vehicles by which you can bring about your charges or claims of sexual harassment to see that they’re adjudicated in a fair way.

With respect to independent contractors, they don’t have those possibilities. They don’t have those opportunities or protections. And in my current work, right now, as I think about this more broadly, I’m focusing now on the fashion industry. And what’s really interesting about the fashion industry is that we have these preconceived ideas that the fashion industry is so glamorous. Models make millions of dollars, they get free clothes, they get to go to these fabulous places. Well, the truth of the matter is that the majority of models are under the age of 25, many of whom are actually underage or youth. They don’t make much money at all. They make maybe $20,000-$30,000 a year. And they are independent contractors. Their agencies represent them to clients, but they’re not employed by their agencies.

So in looking at the fashion industry, what I really was focusing on was how these models were sent out to jobs in order to get modeling jobs. And what I found out was that agencies often sent them to meet with mostly male photographers on their own, even if they were under the age of 18. And what happened as a result, as you might imagine…Now, of course, there are many, many male photographers that behave in a professional way. But there were also many, many instances where these male photographers knew of their power to either make or break a model’s career and would basically harass and abuse these models in their presence when they’re working on a one-to-one basis. And these stories that I’ve studied are really heart-wrenching because again, we have a situation where many of them are under the age of 18. They don’t know what they’re supposed to do. They’re afraid of being dropped by their agency if they’re considered difficult to work with which photographers will label them to be. And as a result, they experienced such harrowing incidents of sexual harassment that are very, very difficult to comprehend. And I’m writing about their stories now.

Stuart Shapiro
Well, you know, I have to hit the policy angle here.

Jocelyn Crowley
Of course!

Stuart Shapiro
As we think about both those in workplaces and independent contractors, what do we need to do in terms of trying to make these situations better and make harassment less likely and protect those who are in vulnerable positions?

Jocelyn Crowley
So I think that for employees in traditional employer-employee relationships, we have a good legal mechanism in place at the federal level, as well as in-state employment agencies, where people can make reports of sexual harassment. I think that as the Me Too movement has gained steam over the past couple of years as well, we know that organizations are trying to do a better job in terms of implementing procedures to help people make claims of sexual harassment and have those adjudicated as well. The most vulnerable part, I think, of the workforce right now are these independent contractors. And so the good news is that we have seen many states take their own initiative in passing laws to protect independent contractors against sexual harassment.

It’s very few, it’s a handful. California has done some things, of course, New York, has done some things, where they’re basically saying, if you fall into this category, these are the tools and methods that you can use to get your situation addressed. But I think in terms of public policy as a whole, we need to be thinking about these workers, we need to be thinking about their vulnerability. And we need to be thinking about what we can do in terms of enhancing the legal infrastructure that is out there to help these individuals who do not have these traditional benefits as well as protections from abuse.

Stuart Shapiro
So it’s tempting… you see all the attention given to this and that’s obviously a good thing and a sign of progress and moving forward. And then you see Donald Trump in the newspapers, and you see Governor Cuomo in the newspapers. You’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time. Are we moving forward? Are we making progress?

Jocelyn Crowley
Very, very good question. I think that we are becoming definitely more aware of the issue. I think that people are being held accountable to a greater degree than they had in the past. But we also see some men, and again we want to give everyone the opportunity, to their case and defend themselves accordingly. But what I have seen more recently, is that some alleged perpetrators of sexual harassment have been sort of sticking their heels into the ground, and basically saying; I deny this, or, I’m sorry that this person felt that way about this interaction, but I’m going to keep on going in my job. And I’m not sure if that’s going to be a successful strategy for alleged perpetrators over the long run. I think I personally was very surprised that Cuomo is sticking it out with respect to all of the allegations that came out. I was less surprised about Donald Trump sticking out in terms of the allegations that came out against him, because, you know, these were sort of baked-in factors.

I think a lot of eyes are going to be watching what happens with Cuomo and his particular political future to see whether it makes sense for people to say alleged perpetrators to automatically say, you know, this was bad, and however, it was my responsibility, I have responsibility for creating this environment, and I’m going to bow out versus sticking it through. I think we need to look at his future and see what happens there. My hope is that when allegations are made of any kind, that they are taken seriously, that they are given the full opportunity to be aired, and that people do have an opportunity to defend themselves against these allegations. But that ultimately, our primary focus is on the victims and restoring them into whole beings and restoring their ability to be productive in their jobs and to move forward in their careers.

Stuart Shapiro
And, you know, I like to blame Trump for everything and I think Cuomo’s decision to stick things out is directly related to the success he saw at the federal level in doing so. And so, you’re right, it will be interesting to see how that plays out as he decides whether to run for reelection and how his reelection prospects suffer.

Jocelyn, thank you so much for a great set of information. And hopefully, we’ll have you back on and we’ll talk about some of these other issues that you studied.

Jocelyn Crowley
It was my pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.

Stuart Shapiro
A big thank you as well to Amy Cobb and Karyn Olsen, who help get this podcast out and on the air. We will see you in two weeks with another talk from another expert at the Bloustein School. Until then stay safe.