Sexual harassment at work: a perennial problem

By Munia Muzammel Shethi

In a letter sent to Harper’s Bazaar in 1908, a woman described how she was offered a job as a stenographer on the condition that she went on ‘pleasure trips’ with the doctor that was hiring her. The wife ‘doesn’t mind’, so the doctor claimed.

A century has passed. Until October, it may have seemed improbable to some that women could face such ordeals in the twenty-first century. After all, haven’t women gained absolute equality? But, following the Harvey Weinstein revelations, it is clear that women’s place at work is still threatened by sexual harassment.

Why do women still have to face sexual violence in the workplace?

Following a series of allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and rape against Weinstein, women from all over the globe felt inspired to share their similar stories on social media using #MeToo to show the magnitude of workplace harassment. These latest revelations of sexual violence against women in the workplace have brought out the same old victim-blaming trope.

The same questions are being asked: Why didn’t they disclose it earlier? Why didn’t they go to the police? Did they dress and behave appropriately? Did they encourage it?

These questions have been raised countless times. However, it is interesting to consider firstly why these questions are even being asked to begin with and, secondly, why women still have to face sexual violence in the workplace. Although the reasoning behind the former is slightly more complicated, both of these questions can be traced back to a common origin.

Unbelievably, married women in the UK have only been able to own property in their own right for just over a century. In the UK, before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, women were unable to be the legal owners of the money they earned.

Women were legally denied economic agency and often their bodies were treated as commodities. They were thus often mere objects of exploitation and the dowry system, which is still rampant in some countries, is a reminder of that.

In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, when women in the west first gained property rights and started to enter the workplace, the age-old paradigm of patriarchal domination was threatened. Women’s participation in wage labour meant that the husband or father no longer remained the sole breadwinner. It meant that women now had a voice in the family.

As small a change as it was, it threatened the traditional construction of the family, which posed a problem for women wanting to work. However, harsh economic reality compelled many working class women to enter the workplace – a place which by then had ingrained the idea that the woman’s place is in the home.

So toxic was the working environment in the late-nineteenth century that it was a widely held belief that most prostitutes were former factory workers who had been sexually exploited at work.

It is no surprise that the female workers were deemed to be of bad character. This not only made it easy to exploit the women, but also disincentivised women from joining the workforce. So, today when a woman’s character is questioned whenever an act of workplace harassment is brought to light, we can see echoes in the past.

In her journal article, Mary Bularzik describes how female workers in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century who faced a range of sexual violence, including rape, were ‘promised jobs’ before being ‘threatened with loss of jobs and blacklisting’. In response to resistance to one of his unwanted sexual advances, the disgraced Harvey Weinstein once allegedly threatened that if the then future Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o wanted to make it as an actress she would have to put up with ‘this sort of thing’.

Women are still asked to have a ‘sense of humour’

In response, women are asked to have a ‘robust attitude’ and ‘sense of humour’, amongst other things. There are echoes of the situation from a century ago.

Women still face sexual violence in the workplace because the working environment is built upon patriarchal traditions of exploitation. It is not restricted to the confines of the Hollywood Hills. Around 40% of women working in the fast food industry have been sexually harassed at work, and this experience of harassment for women ranges from the fast food industry to the military.

Up until the 1910s, one of the most common arguments made in opposition to allowing women to vote in the US was that it would be unfair to unmarried men because a married man would then have two votes, as the property votes as her owner votes. Since 1957, thanks to women’s movements and organised activist efforts, women have been allowed to serve on federal juries, and since then enormous changes have been made.

We are aware of the arguments made in opposition to women’s basic human rights back in the 1910s which later collapsed, and now we too are witnessing similar reactionary forces using terms like ‘feminazi’ to impede the process of equality, and to undermine those who have the temerity to challenge, retaliate against and fight sexism. Perhaps this means we are in the long but last bout of patriarchy.

Photograph: Seattle Municipal Archives via Flickr and Creative Commons

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