Home / Economy / The #MeToo Moment Hasn’t Reached Women In Low-Wage Jobs. Will It?

The #MeToo Moment Hasn’t Reached Women In Low-Wage Jobs. Will It?

There was physical evidence that something had happened.

The medical examination on May 14, 2011, found redness around Nafissatou Diallo’s vaginal area. Her pantyhose were torn. There was semen on her housekeeper’s uniform as well as on the walls and carpet of Room 2806 in the midtown Manhattan Sofitel hotel.

She told police that the man with the distinguished white hair — a guest of the hotel and a likely candidate for the French presidency, Dominique Strauss-Kahn — had forced her into oral sex after emerging naked from the bathroom of a suite. Strauss-Kahn was pulled from an airplane minutes before it was due to depart for Paris and arrested, a dramatic act pursuing the course of justice.

But as time went on and the case unfolded, prosecutors weren’t sure they could trust Diallo over Strauss-Kahn, who claimed that the encounter had been consensual. Whom to believe? A powerful white man in politics or a black hotel housekeeper from Africa? With none of today’s groundswell of support for women accusers, what might have become a watershed cultural moment became muddled in doubt.

In 2011, the culture wasn’t primed for it; the time wasn’t yet ripe.

Diallo was too unreliable to be an effective advocate for her case in court, said prosecutors from the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. When the D.A. declined to pursue charges in the case, his office compiled a 25-page document outlining the ways the defense team could poke holes in her story. Vance’s prosecutors enumerated how Diallo had lied about a number of things in her background, including being gang-raped in her native Guinea.1 But they also cast doubt over the severity of a shoulder injury she claimed to have sustained during the attack, and they seemed to insinuate that her changing her mind about seeking financial redress from Strauss-Kahn was distasteful. “The complainant’s previous disavowal of any financial interest,� the prosecutors wrote, was “relevant to her credibility.�

The media picked up on the doubt. The New York Post called her a “hooker,� and The New York Times seemed to agree that “having been tricked by Ms. Diallo, none of the seasoned lawyers or investigators could ask a jury to convict Mr. Strauss-Kahn based on those very tools of dramatic persuasion.� Media coverage of the case seemed largely about Diallo’s inconsistencies, the casting of reasonable doubt.

She was far from an ideal witness, but her word that something violent had happened still stood, as did the physical evidence. A liar can be a rape victim, too.

The 2011 coverage of the case didn’t give rise to an outpouring of Twitter hashtag activism. No mass movement of women connected their private experiences of harassment or assault to Diallo’s very public accusations. There were certainly many who were sympathetic to Diallo, but her case did not become emblematic, lastingly imprinted in the public’s moral consciousness.

Since the Diallo-Strauss-Kahn case made headlines six years ago, parts of American society now seem more inclined to “believe women.â€� 2011 came close to having a sexual misconduct moment, one that was started by a low-wage woman’s complaint — the crucial element of rapt media attention was certainly there. But the culture wasn’t primed for it; the time wasn’t yet ripe.

As male harassers and assaulters have been unmasked over the last few months, the reckoning has largely been confined to the realm of the white-collar worker, particularly in industries with big names familiar to the public. While the social stigma against reporting harassment may fall away in some sectors of the economy, women with less social capital have yet to see the names of their harassers — or even simply reports of widespread patterns of harassment in their industries — splashed across front pages.

In other words, blue-collar and pink-collar jobs — the sort society has traditionally assigned to women — have not yet had their moment of catharsis. A question remains as to whether they ever will.

The most common full-time job for a woman in America is an elementary or middle school teacher. Next come the nurses, secretaries and home health aides. Nafissatou Diallo held the 14th most common job for a woman in America — a maid or housekeeping cleaner.

The most common occupations, by gender

Among full-time American workers, 2016

Elementary and middle school teachers605K2,231K
Registered nurses2852,213
Secretaries and administrative assistants1332,078
Nursing, psychiatric and home health aides1941,192
Customer service representatives6641,185
Managers, all other1,8451,115
First-line supervisors of retail sales workers1,3211,047
Accountants and auditors559892
Receptionists and information clerks103848
First-line supervisors of office and administrative support workers383819
Office clerks, general140760
Retail salespeople1,103728
Maids and housekeeping cleaners120661
Bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks115641
Personal care aides125636
Waiters and waitresses342607
Financial managers527578
Secondary school teachers403562
Social workers127557
Education administrators297541
Teacher assistants56532
Preschool and kindergarten teachers13518
Licensed practical and vocational nurses44481
Human resources workers166465
Medical assistants36452
Postsecondary teachers535445
Janitors and building cleaners1,139441
Marketing and sales managers518403
Medical and health services managers133399
Child care workers24381
Stock clerks and order fillers643371
Health practitioner support technologists and technicians113361
Billing and posting clerks44360
Office and administrative support workers, all other107351
Food service managers410350
Miscellaneous assemblers and fabricators645345
Chief executives832318
Paralegals and legal assistants43308
Physicians and surgeons497308
Sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing819302
Real estate brokers and sales agents209284
Hairdressers, hairstylists and cosmetologists27281
Software developers, applications and systems software1,084266
Special education teachers49264
Food preparation workers215262
Management analysts332253
First-line supervisors of food preparation and serving workers174251
General and operations managers626250
Social and community service managers115248
Production workers, all other641246
Inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers and weighers445241
First-line supervisors of nonretail sales workers552230
Laborers and freight, stock and material movers, hand1,196221
Property, real estate and community association managers181221
Packers and packagers, hand166216
Other teachers and instructors156214
Insurance claims and policy processing clerks40210
Claims adjusters, appraisers, examiners and investigators114206
Insurance sales agents218205
Credit counselors and loan officers151200
Clinical laboratory technologists and technicians97198
Human resources managers73190
Computer systems analysts314182
Dental assistants19180
Diagnostic related technologists and technicians79175
Data entry keyers51170
Miscellaneous personal appearance workers37167
Medical records and health information technicians11159
Security guards and gaming surveillance officers576152
Shipping, receiving and traffic clerks322151
Computer and information systems managers443150
Bus drivers197146
Business operations specialists, all other110146
Compliance officers106146
Sales representatives, services, all other282145
Personal financial advisers258142
Nurse practitioners11133
First-line supervisors of production and operating workers599131
Market research analysts and marketing specialists116130
Physical therapists69128
Purchasing agents, except wholesale, retail and farm products128125
Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food72125
Computer support specialists367124
Social and human service assistants29122
Driver/sales workers and truck drivers2,689120
Postal service mail carriers185119
Sewing machine operators52114
File clerks21113
Packaging and filling machine operators and tenders112113
Miscellaneous agricultural workers547111
Physical scientists, all other131111
Production, planning and expediting clerks113111
Payroll and timekeeping clerks15110
Speech-language pathologists3109
Therapists, all other32106
Computer occupations, all other418106
Bill and account collectors39105
Computer programmers300104
Financial analysts173104
Loan interviewers and clerks25100
Police and sheriff’s patrol officers609100
Recreation and fitness workers92100
Interviewers, except eligibility and loan798
Miscellaneous legal support workers3098
Purchasing managers9592
Bailiffs, correctional officers and jailers27591
Meeting, convention and event planners3088
Wholesale and retail buyers, except farm products6883
Training and development specialists4782
Advertising sales agents12281
Laundry and dry-cleaning workers5580
Engineering technicians, except drafters27575
Metal workers and plastic workers, all other30674
Dental hygienists273
Information and record clerks, all other3173
Dietitians and nutritionists1171
Nonfarm animal caretakers1771
Food servers, nonrestaurant3371
First-line supervisors of housekeeping and janitorial workers11971
Administrative services managers10171
Insurance underwriters3468
Chefs and head cooks28868
Sales and related workers, all other10368
Other education, training and library workers2467
Public relations specialists4067
Hotel, motel and resort desk clerks3666
Industrial production managers20166
Operations research analysts5966
Miscellaneous health care support occupations, including medical equipment preparers2965
Miscellaneous health technologists and technicians4364
Lodging managers5964
Miscellaneous community and social service specialists, including health educators and community health workers2063
Engineers, all other43063
Securities, commodities and financial services sales agents15563
Occupational therapists1061
Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists3961
Butchers and other meat, poultry and fish processing workers18361
Court, municipal and license clerks1960
Writers and authors3960
Emergency medical technicians and paramedics11460
First-line supervisors of gaming workers6859
Medical scientists6957
Miscellaneous life, physical and social science technicians6257
Reservation and transportation ticket agents and travel clerks4656
Eligibility interviewers, government programs1755
Respiratory therapists2254
Industrial truck and tractor operators51054
Postal service clerks5853
Compensation, benefits and job analysis specialists2151
Transportation, storage and distribution managers23751
Dining room and cafeteria attendants and bartender helpers8251
Hosts and hostesses, restaurant, lounge and coffee shop2450
Physician assistants2550
Producers and directors7850
Electrical, electronics and electromechanical assemblers5550
Industrial engineers, including health and safety16946
Web developers9745
Architects, except naval13543
Construction laborers1,28141
Food processing workers, all other8841
Civil engineers35039
Supervisors of transportation and material moving workers12639
Taxi drivers and chauffeurs22238
Chemists and materials scientists5636
Construction managers45235
Athletes, coaches, umpires and related workers10635
Grounds maintenance workers84434
Printing press operators13733
Network and computer systems administrators16829
Cleaners of vehicles and equipment22428
Detectives and criminal investigators10428
Electrical and electronics engineers24526
First-line supervisors of mechanics, installers and repairers22125
Couriers and messengers13525
Chemical technicians5025
Mechanical engineers31124
Welding, soldering and brazing workers53523
First-line supervisors of police and detectives9723
First-line supervisors of protective service workers, all other6623
Radio and telecommunications equipment installers and repairers11022
Environmental scientists and geoscientists5821
Information security analysts6520
First-line supervisors of construction trades and extraction workers54018
Chemical engineers7318
Cutting, punching and press machine setters, operators and tenders, metal and plastic6818
Painters, construction and maintenance37517
Farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers10217
Computer, automated teller and office machine repairers15015
Maintenance and repair workers, general50213
Broadcast and sound engineering technicians and radio operators6713
Cutting workers5013
Computer network architects9312
Automotive service technicians and mechanics67711
Pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters46411
Industrial and refractory machinery mechanics37411
Painting workers14711
Parts salespersons8511
Aerospace engineers11410
Architectural and engineering managers1349
Cost estimators969
Other installation, maintenance and repair workers1308
Aircraft pilots and flight engineers1127
Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators3286
Crushing, grinding, polishing, mixing and blending workers826
Computer control programmers and operators806
Construction and building inspectors626
Automotive body and related repairers1125
Automotive and watercraft service attendants675
Surveying and mapping technicians615
Heating, air conditioning and refrigeration mechanics and installers3574
Telecommunications line installers and repairers1684
Stationary engineers and boiler operators724
Refuse and recyclable material collectors644
Parking lot attendants624
Sheet metal workers1153
Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators723
Aircraft mechanics and service technicians1342
Carpet, floor and tile installers and finishers912
Highway maintenance workers832
Pest control workers592
Bus and truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists2971
Drywall installers, ceiling tile installers and tapers1371
Electrical power-line installers and repairers1251
First-line supervisors of landscaping, lawn service and groundskeeping workers1121
Security and fire alarm systems installers681
Structural iron and steel workers601
Railroad conductors and yardmasters511
Heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians and mechanics1980
Brickmasons, blockmasons and stonemasons1190
Miscellaneous vehicle and mobile equipment mechanics, installers, and repairers730
Crane and tower operators660

Excluding occupations with fewer than 50,000 men or women

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

When it comes to workplace harassment, particularly sexual harassment, the women in these largely pink-collar jobs face challenges both institutional and societal.

When the time comes to speak out, many of the women in these fields lack support from organizations like unions. “If I’m a low-wage worker who works in a restaurant and I’m not in a union, and I’m in a state where I’m working with a minimum wage, the customer has control over my work conditions,â€� said KC Wagner, director of workplace issues at Cornell University’s labor institute.

Women reporting harassers on their own are more likely to weigh the potential economic repercussions. “If I were to speak out, what is management’s response to me objecting to behavior from a customer?� Wagner said. She added that women in jobs like this often face workplace cultures that say the customer is always right, and sometimes they have to grapple with one particularly uncomfortable question: “Am I on the menu?�

In addition to the institutional challenges of particular workplaces, many pink-collar jobs are done by minorities who face systemic prejudice — prejudice that could make them less willing to report harassment or to navigate the legal system. “There are many points in time that people come forward, and then for different reasons withdraw their claim,â€� said Monica Ramirez, deputy director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. “That could be because they’re fearful or don’t understand the process.â€� Immigrant women are particularly vulnerable, she said. “They don’t always have an advocate to help them through either the criminal justice system or the civil side.â€�

Harassment is a useful tool to put a woman in her place. Whatever place that might be.

Even when they do pursue allegations, a victim’s social capital casts a shadow over cases of sexual assault and harassment. The cases are difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law, and believability is oftentimes caught up in a victim’s life circumstances. “Structural racism — who gets believed and who doesn’t,â€� Wagner said, is a powerful force facing women who report harassment claims.

As in so many parts of American life, the inequities are baldly apparent, the solutions less so.

Like Nafissatou Diallo, Sandra Pezqueda worked in a hotel – and a beautiful one at that. The Terranea Resort, just a ways up the road from Trump National Golf Club Los Angeles, juts out into the Pacific Ocean and is studded with pools, palm trees and putting greens.

But Pezqueda says her shift-work job as a dishwasher and chef’s assistant had an ugly element. According to Pezqueda’s complaint, her male supervisor took an immediate shine to her, hitting on her, texting her and, one day, cornering her in a part of the resort free from security cameras. He tried to kiss her. Pezqueda shook and kept her head down, and finally he let her go. After, he told Pezqueda he was watching her. He gave her more hours if she played along and responded to his texts but took away shifts if she didn’t. He followed her to a warehouse another day, cornered her and kissed her. He told Pezqueda he wanted to be with her, but that she would have to be available whenever he wanted. Pezqueda said no, and soon after, he took her off the work schedule for two weeks. Things only got worse, and finally, she reported him to management. They told her it was his word against hers.

“At first I felt relieved, but then after that, they made me feel like I’m nothing.�

A little while later, Pezqueda was fired. FiveThirtyEight reached out to Terranea for comment, but a spokesperson did not respond directly to questions about Pezqueda’s dismissal.2 She has since filed a complaint against the resort and her staffing agency for wrongful termination. The job wasn’t a unionized one.

While the power of trade unions has diminished in American society, women in low-wage, service-sector jobs might find an amplification of their voices through collective bargaining and union advocacy. Unions rose in the 20th century as a working class and middle-class counterbalance to the power of corporate interests. They were at their peak in 1954, when 35 percent of all U.S. workers belonged to one. Traditionally unionized sectors — like manufacturing and construction — have been hit hard by globalization and have seen their workforce shrink. But service sectors of the economy, which employ greater numbers of women, have grown since the 1970s, a decade that also saw increased rates of women coming into the workplace. The Service Employees International Union, half of whose members are women and which is led by a woman, is one of the fastest growing in the country.

Organized labor hasn’t been traditionally inclined to understand the needs of women in the workforce. Labor historian Ileen DeVault said that labor organizations in the late 19th century experimented with child care collectives, but “not until the 1990s and the early 2000s� did they address issues like parental leave or child care. Sexual harassment wasn’t on the radar. Just this November, SEIU fired senior leadership over allegations that they harassed women on staff.

Unions may have ignored harassment until recently, but women in pink-collar jobs have known it all too well. An analysis by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, found that most sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from the accommodation and food services sector, followed by retail, manufacturing, and health care and social assistance jobs.

Sexual harassment charges, by industry

Among charges filed by women, fiscal years 2005-2015

Accommodation and food services4,801
Retail trade4,380
Health care and social assistance3,898
Office administration and waste management2,350
Public administration2,239
Professional, scientific and technical services1,944
Transportation and warehousing1,601
Finance and insurance1,380
Educational services1,340
Other services (except public administration)1,003
Wholesale trade752
Real estate rental and leasing611
Arts, entertainment and recreation537
Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting276
Management of companies and enterprises213

Not including 35,304 charges filed without a specified industry

Source: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Food services is among the least-unionized segments of the American economy — it has only a 1.6 percent rate of unionization.

“The issue of worker voice — collective representation — in low-wage work that may or may not be represented by a union is really key,â€� Wagner said. Many workers in these industries are left vulnerable without a steady base wage, formal advocates or the leverage provided by collective bargaining. Take restaurant workers, for example. In 2014, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a worker advocacy organization, studied the way tipped work can disincentivize reporting harassment and found workers’ reliance on customer relationships to be a big factor. “Due to the two-tiered wage system that allows restaurant employers to pay as little as $2.13 an hour (the federal tipped minimum wage since 1991) to tipped workers,â€� the study notes, “women in tipped occupations often make a living entirely off tips.â€�

Organizations like the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United help workers in sectors of the economy that aren’t union-organized, Wagner said. That advocacy organizations hear workers’ experiences and grapple with how to solve problems creatively is crucial to implementing change.

For hotel workers, the Diallo-Strauss-Kahn case proved to be an unexpected reckoning, a tabloid moment that loosened stories that might otherwise have remained tucked away. “We realized how far spread it was in our union,� Rachel Gumpert of the Unite Here hotel workers union of New York City said of the aftermath. “When that happened and we saw our member (Diallo) get villainized, it made it really clear that women need protections on the job.� The Unite Here union campaigned for panic buttons for its workers, a solution that came directly from members to solve a problem distinct to women.

In 2012, the union’s New York City collective bargaining agreement included a requirement that housekeepers be provided with a personal panic button in the case of emergencies. The decision affected 75 percent of hotel workers in New York, according to the union. This fall, Chicago passed a city ordinance mandating panic buttons for hotel workers after a campaign by the union and a survey that found that 49 percent of housekeepers reported that guests had opened the door naked or exposed themselves.

Part of the Chicago campaign for panic buttons (“Hands Off, Pants On�) included a video of gruff union men reading aloud the testimonials of female hotel workers, grimacing into the camera at the descriptions of lewd behavior.

“If my sister or my daughter was subjected to this, there would be some violent action taking place,� says Jesse Rios of the Federation of Labor, glowering at the camera.

Things have largely gotten back to normal for Dominique Strauss-Kahn. After the Diallo case, he was investigated for possible involvement in a prostitution ring and a gang rape, though French prosecutors later dropped the probe. He also stood trial in France on aggravated pimping charges but was acquitted. He’s since entered the business world, moved to Marrakech and, according to recent reports, married his fourth wife.

As for Diallo, she won a civil suit against Strauss-Kahn and has since lived a quiet life, opening a restaurant in the Bronx.

Looking back on the case in the midst of 2017’s spate of sexual harassment stories raises the question: Would prosecutors have pursued her accusation differently if it had cropped up in the present moment? Would the system have found the word of an African housekeeper against a powerful white man’s more credible? Doug Wigdor, one of her lawyers, isn’t confident that things would have turned out much differently at all.

“You compare the way she was treated as a victim to the way DSK was as a suspect, it’s incredible,� he told me. Strauss-Kahn wasn’t handcuffed when he was arrested, and while he didn’t invoke his right to counsel for hours, the police never interrogated him. Diallo, on the other hand, “was yelled at and was just treated very distastefully.�3

Particularly in the service industry, all the inherent racial and economic power dynamics of American society are on display.

Minority women make up substantial numbers of those who occupy pink-collar and service industry jobs. They’re also more likely to be both sexually and racially harassed. But they might feel more apprehension reporting their harassment up the institutional chain at work, let alone to law enforcement, for a number of reasons.

A fear of poor treatment might be considered by women before they make an official complaint. A Department of Justice report last year on Baltimore found that its police force and prosecutors fostered a dismissive culture toward minority victims of sexual assault. One prosecutor referred in a text message to a woman reporting an assault as “a conniving little whore.� Similar dismissive patterns were investigated in New Orleans, Puerto Rico and Missoula, Montana, after each locality was investigated by the Justice Department.

But even reporting harassment to workplace supervisors can be challenging. For women who don’t speak English and who work in temp jobs, Ramirez of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement said, it can be challenging to know how to report something up the chain of command. Instead of lodging a complaint with HR, victims might be forced to talk directly to a supervisor. “Sometimes the supervisors are the only people with whom they can communicate if they’re a Spanish-speaking immigrant or an indigenous worker,� Ramirez said. “And that person can sometimes be the perpetrator.�

For many immigrant women who fill low-wage jobs, their immigration status can weigh heavily as they consider whether to lodge a complaint. “Certainly now in this political climate, people are afraid to come forward because if they make a report, they think they’re going to be turned over to immigration,� Ramirez said. “Sometimes, that’s what the perpetrators tell them.�

Particularly in the service industry, all the inherent racial and economic power dynamics of American society are on display. In its survey and report on the harassment of hotel workers in Chicago, Unite Here pointed out that “the social and economic status of the male guests who frequent hotels, casinos and convention centers often contrasts sharply with that of the women who work there.� Hotel management has a “conflict of interest,� Wigdor said. “On the one side they want to treat their employees well, but on the other side they need to make sure that guests are treated well too, especially guests that are rich and famous.� Guests’ sense of impunity was brought up in the Chicago report: 65 percent of casino cocktail servers surveyed had had a guest touch or grab them. Women described men following them around the casino and suggesting sexual gratification in exchange for tips.

Wigdor pointed me to an advertisement for the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas from a couple of years ago that shows two maids blindfolded and tied to two chairs. The ad is emblazoned with the slogan, “Just the right amount of wrong.�

So will the harassment reckoning for women in low-wage jobs ever come?

Unlike in 2011, much of what has been talked about in recent weeks has to do with the dignity of women in the workplace. Sexual harassment is meant to mark a person out, to keep her in her designated place. But the nature of harassment changes depending on who it targets. In one form, it is a reminder to a woman that she is her body, first and foremost. In another form, it’s not a proposition or a lecherous squeeze but a reminder that her value is simply “less,â€� for whatever reason. Researchers call the latter sort “gender harassmentâ€� — “analogous to the difference between a ‘come on’ and a ‘put down.’â€�

Harassment is, in other words, a useful tool to put a woman in her place. Whatever place that might be.

An accountability revolution of the sort we’ve seen in Hollywood might never come in the same way for low-wage workers. In part that’s because what gives women the power to speak out against harassers is, to a certain extent, economic autonomy and a safety net. To see the economic devastation that reporting harassment can wreak, one need only look at the former congressional communications director for Rep. Blake Farenthold, who reported her boss’s behavior and now can’t land a full-time job. She’s baby-sitting for extra cash.

Women in low-wage jobs, often immigrants, usually can’t afford to call harassment out.

That is not to say a change won’t come. Though it might come in a more gradual form, a creeping, rising tide rather than a wave.

For Wagner, tackling bullying in the workplace is actually one of the surest ways to eat away at behavioral norms that come to damage women. Sexual harassment, after all, is a way to demean and insult — a gendered way to bully. A macho workplace culture can normalize bullying, meaning men don’t act when they see women who are sexually harassed. “The overwhelming target of bullying is men against other men,â€� Wagner said. Men who are bullied become prisoners of the same power dynamics that plague women who are harassed, though the damage takes different forms. Men become numb to bad behavior — and learn to stand on the sidelines and watch without speaking up.

For now, it falls mostly to women to take on the mantle of change, though that is still something that makes Wagner optimistic for the future. What brings change, she said, is “individuals pushing the law forward through their courage to bring complaints.�

I recently talked to Sandra Pezqueda, through a translator, about reporting her harassment to her supervisors at the resort.

“At first I felt relieved, but then after that, they made me feel like I’m nothing,� she said.

Other women at work had warned her about reporting her supervisor, but Pezqueda felt she had nothing to lose — she wasn’t getting the hours she needed anyway.

Pezqueda has a new job — she works in a warehouse — but she still thinks of the people at her old one. It makes her feel good, she said, that her complaint might do something to fix the conditions for others.

“I think things are going to change there for the better.�