Sexual Harassment isn’t a “Women’s Issue”—It’s an Economic Epidemic

Opera is dramatic and incisive, known for its ability to swiftly expose universal truths about human nature in just a few acts. But just as art imitates life, so too does life imitate art—and in the case of Plácido Domingo, who resigned as director of the Los Angeles Opera following multiple sexual harassment allegations last week, the line between art and reality has become increasingly blurred.

The allegations facing one of opera’s most prominent voices has exposed deep truths about power in the workplace and the compounding repercussions that women, and in turn our economy, face in the wake of workplace sexual misconduct. But we must not lose sight of the survivors of the alleged harassment.

(Victoria Pickering / Creative Commons)

Twenty opera singers who worked with Domingo have reported incidents of sexual harassment going back decades—including groping, unwanted physical contact and persistent contact, often late at night. In response, these women developed an “oral tradition,” as one mezzo-soprano called it, where women would warn each other about Domingo’s behavior and share tactics for how to avoid him or get out of situations alone with him. That choice often stunted their professional growth.

Sadly, this is a story we see throughout multiple sectors in our society—one that has a cascade of consequences for women, and for the entire economy. Too often, we ignore the profound economic costs that women pay as a result of behavior that is all too often dismissed as “boys being boys.”

Sexual harassment not only creates an unsafe work environment, but also forces many women to make the impossible choice between their personal safety and putting food on the table for their families. More often than not, the situation becomes too difficult to endure. One study found that 80 percent of women who experience sexual misconduct leave their job within two years, and many leave the field entirely. Other women try and work around the situation. In the Domingo case, women reported intentionally scheduling around having to work with the singer, potentially leading to missed career opportunities.

By pushing women to step down from higher-paying jobs or turn away advancement opportunities, harassment perpetuates the gender wage gap. While women make up about half the workforce, they constitute 70 percent of employees whose jobs paid less than $10 per hour, and Black, Latinx and Native/API women are paid about 60 percent of what white men make. Inequities in income lead to the gender wealth gap, depriving women of the financial cushion with which to make decisions that suit them. Black and Latinx women currently own only one cent to every dollar owned by white men. Over time, a persistent gender wealth gap means that women have less agency to leave bad jobs or abusive relationships, less ability to invest in assets that can create wealth to pass on to their children and enjoy less economic security in old age.

Taken together, harassment is a persistent driver of economic instability for women across a wide range of issues—and it affects women from all walks of life. One report found that one in 10 women in the tech industry have experienced unwanted sexual attention, and more than half of women faculty and staff in academia report encountering sexual harassment. But it is those women with the least power in their workplaces and in society, those who are paid the least and had the least wealth to begin with, that are most vulnerable to sexual harassment, and most often left out of the conversation. Restaurant and hotel workers face the highest reported rates of sexual harassment: 90 percent of women working in restaurants report experiencing sexual harassment, and harassment and assault are sadly commonplace among women who clean hotel rooms.

Economic empowerment through wealth accumulation in particular is paramount in our quest to achieve gender equity. Economic security affords women choice, dignity and power. Sexual assault and harassment strips women of these intrinsic rights and perpetuates a cycle of inequality that has held women back for far too long.

Women are the backbone of our society and economy. They care for our young and our old, make up close to 50 percent of the workforce and control almost 80 percent of consumer purchases. Yet we fail to see and treat sexual predatory behavior, something that all too many women experience, as more than an interpersonal situation, rather than a serious threat to our collective well-being.

As we reflect upon the two year anniversary of the #MeToo movement and the one year anniversary of the Kavanaugh hearings, it is time for us to deepen our collective understanding of the wide-ranging economic and emotional consequences of sexual harassment—and recognize that when women are held back, we all suffer the consequences.

About and

Rakeen Mabud is the managing director of policy and research and chief economist at the Groundwork Collaborative. Most recently, she was the senior director of research and strategy at TIME’S UP Foundation, where she spearheaded the organization’s signature Time’s Up, Measure Up initiative. She also served in the Obama administration in the Office of Economic Policy at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. She is an expert on economic inequality and the 21st century workplace, with a particular focus on how structural factors such as racism and sexism perpetuate inequities. Rakeen holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and received her B.A. in economics and political science from Wellesley College.
Jhumpa Bhattacharya is co-president and co-founder of The Maven Collaborative in Oakland.