Out of Spotlight and Across Industries, Surveys Reveal Pervasive Sexual Harassment of Women

A waitress stands at a famous restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo: nyusaf/Flickr/cc)

Out of Spotlight and Across Industries, Surveys Reveal Pervasive Sexual Harassment of Women

National surveys show more than a third of women across America are abused by bosses, colleagues, and customers while on the job

Amid a wave of new sexual harassment and assault allegations in politics and news media this week, two polls released Tuesday illustrate how pervasive such behavior is in many other industries across America, with 35-40 percent of women reporting they have been harassed at work.

A survey (pdf) conducted in mid-November by PBS NewsHour, NPR, and Marist found that 35 percent of women and 9 percent of men have "experienced sexual harassment or abuse from someone in the workplace." A Quinnipiac University poll, also conducted in mid-November, found that 60 percent of women have been sexual harassed generally, and 69 percent of those women said it happened at work; it also found 20 percent of men have experienced sexual harassment, the majority of which also took place at work.

The results follow a series of reports in recent weeks that have highlighted how women working in service industries, such as hotels and restaurants, are especially susceptible to sexual harassment and assault. Other reports have examined how immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, often experience abuse. Although such findings have been well documented for several years, these issues have received heightened attention lately, as several high-profile people have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct, and survivors have turned to social media with the hashtag #MeToo to share their stories.


On November 10, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas wrote an open letter to women in the entertainment industry--the center of much attention as allegations of sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and other famous men have come to light. The group represents women who work in the agricultural sector across the country.

"We write on behalf of the approximately 700,000 women who work in the agricultural fields and packing sheds across the United States," read the letter. "We wish that we could say we're shocked to learn that [sexual abuse] is such a pervasive problem in your industry. Sadly, we're not surprised because it's a reality we know far too well."

A 2012 report by Human Rights Watch found that out of 52 female farmworkers surveyed, nearly all of them had experienced sexual abuse on the job, while a study done by University of California at Santa Cruz found that out of 150 women working on farms, 60 percent had been sexually harassed.

Restaurant Servers

The Chicago Tribunepublished a report on Sunday detailing the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault in the restaurant industry, naming high-profile restaurateurs like John Besh in New Orleans--but stressing that much of the abuse happens in the lower ranks of the business:

It takes place in suburban chains and in dazzling three-star Michelin restaurants, and its perpetrators might just as easily be owners as lowly barbacks. The reasons are many, and they're complicated: Many kitchens are boys' clubs, dominated by machismo and flashing knives; many women rely on pleasing their male customers and managers for tips or good shifts; human resources departments might be nonexistent or toothless; and restaurant staffs are often hard-partying posses that blur professional lines.

The Tribune interviewed a wide range of women who spoke about sexual misconduct in restaurant kitchens, bars, and management teams--from waitresses who were grabbed by customers to a cook-dishwasher who was raped in a back room by a restaurant owner.

In 2015, according to the report, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received more complaints of sexual harassment in the hotel and food services industry than in any other sector. A survey by Restaurant Opportunities Center United found that one-third of women who worked in restaurants reported than unwanted touching was a common occurrence at their jobs.

Hotel Staff

A report by the Huffington Post published Saturday examined how low-wage workers in hotels are frequently abused. "Frankly, I don't think much of the public understands what housekeepers go through just to clean these rooms and carry out the work," Maria Elena Durazo, a labor leader with the hospitality union Unite Here, told the Huff Post.

"Durazo's union has advocated for housekeepers to be given handheld, wireless panic buttons that can alert hotel security when a worker feels threatened--a sign of how dire it views the problem of sexual predation in the hotel industry," the report notes. The union is working to negotiate the use of panic buttons in their employer contracts as well as lobbying cities to require them through local legislation. According to Durazo, as the Huff Post reports:

the panic buttons only go so far in addressing the more fundamental problem: an imbalance of economic power between perpetrators and their victims, especially when the victims are working in or near poverty. "We have to do something to equalize the power so that women really have the ability to speak up, without having to risk their livelihood," she said. "That goes for whether you're a housekeeper or a food server or a big-time actor."

Last year, Unite Here surveyed roughly 500 of its Chicago area members who work as housekeepers and servers in hotels and casinos. Of those surveyed--many of whom were immigrants and women of color--77 percent of casino workers and 58 percent of hotel workers reported that they had been sexually harassed by a guest, and 56 percent of those hotel workers said they felt unsafe on the job following the harassment.

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