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Why are Retail Workers Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment?

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It seems as though no industry is immune from the scourge of sexual harassment. Employees in all industries can be mistreated, abused, and harassed.

One sector that may not have received as much media attention regarding sexual harassment is the retail arena. News reports in recent years have focused on sexual harassment in the fields of media and politics, perhaps because of the celebrities involved. However, abuse seems to be even more prevalent for service-sector workers, including retail workers.

Women at Risk

A study by the Center for American Progress shows that sexual harassment is indeed a serious problem for retail workers. These claims do not get as much attention, and a large number of the victims are female. Women of color in these situations face a combination of gender, ethnic, and racial prejudice in workplaces. This can lead to demeaning stereotypes, which heightens the risk of being sexually harassed.

The study also shows that more than 25 percent of sexual harassment charges are filed in industries that have large numbers of service sector workers. Many of these are low-wage jobs, often held by women. Furthermore, close to 75 percent of these charges detail allegations of retribution by employers; this indicates that victims could face possible retaliation in the workplace when filing the charges or afterwards.

Who is Vulnerable to Harassment?

A New York Times article claims that full-time retail employees usually earn low wages. It also states that almost half of retail workers and more than half of all low-earning retail workers are female. Furthermore, 29 percent of low-earning female retail workers are living in or close to poverty. Women and women of color are more prone to be employed at low-wage jobs, and these types of jobs are likely to have more pronounced power imbalances and stronger fears of retaliation. Those two factors work together to keep victims from speaking out against their abusers.

An analysis by Rand Corporation also indicates that one out of five employees claim that their work environments are threatening or hostile, which includes sexual harassment and abuse. This survey also shows that retail workers deal with a disproportionate amount of abuse.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Data

Employment discrimination laws, like the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protect workers from sexual harassment. Specifically, Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on gender, sex, race, and national origin. Employees who allege workplace sexual harassment may file charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

For the fiscal year ending on September 30, 2019, the EEOC received 72,675 charges of workplace discrimination. Out of these, 32.4 percent of all charges were based on sex and 53.8 percent were based on retaliation. Some of the victims filed multiple charges, and other categories for discrimination included age, race, disability, and religion. Industry-wise, the leading sectors were accommodation and food services, retail trades, and the manufacturing industry.

Where Does Sexual Harassment Mostly Happen?

Accommodation and food services includes restaurants, cafes, hotels, and recreational facilities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that females represent the largest majority of employees in this industry, including lower-paying positions, like food preparers and servers.

Fast-food companies rank high on the sexual harassment scale, two-thirds of female workers and over half of male workers are sexually harassed by management workers. Close to 80 percent of females and 70 percent of males are sexually harassed by co-workers Additionally, close to 80 percent of females and 55 percent of males experience sexual harassment by customers.

The retail trade encompasses grocery stores, department stores, drug stores, gas stations, office supply stores, and other retail outlets. Many of the positions, like salesclerks and cashiers, offer low wages and are mostly held by women.

Toxic Work Environments

The high sexual harassment rates in the retail industry relates to workforce demographics. Sexual violence in the workplace is all about power and control, and the abusers target vulnerable people, including women and women of color. Often, abusers focus on victims who they feel will not report them or be taken seriously if they do.

In one instance, a female employee who worked at a retail store in a shopping mall was a target of unwanted, consistent sexual attention from a male co-worker. He commented about her body, complimenting her legs and talking about the chances of them getting married. She became desensitized to it since the sexual comments were so frequent. She did not report the harassment because she did not think she would be taken seriously. One of her co-workers confirmed the abuser’s behavior, and further commented that he made numerous people feel uncomfortable.

The harassed employee left the company and went to work at a tech store. Within a month, a male employee started making inappropriate comments to her about her body too. She informed her manager, even though she felt uncomfortable about the situation. This manager did pursue a punishment for the harasser, and the employee was given paid time off. When she returned though, she was placed in the same working capacity as before with her harasser.

This indicates that employers need to fight against harassment. It is crucial that women who are being sexually harassed speak out against the harassment. Additionally, employers must take sexual harassment claims seriously and educate their employees about what to do if they are sexually harassed. Employers need to proactively stop harassment so that all of their workers feel safe.

Why are Victims Afraid to Speak Out?

The uncertainty that surrounds incidences of workplace sexual harassment can contribute to an employee’s hesitancy to get management involved. People remember things differently, and a victim or harasser can have different versions of what happened. Employees can mistakenly believe that they are to blame for the abuse, or that they even deserved it; often, victims engage in self-doubt.

In addition, some managers may not take the complaint seriously and will treat the victim differently afterwards. Abusers may also make attempts at retaliation by badmouthing the victim to others or escalating the sexual harassment.

Another big reason why retail workers are vulnerable and afraid to complain is because they fear that they will lose their jobs. In essence, these employees are economically vulnerable. This shifts the power balance more heavily on the harasser’s side. Employees in positions that control paychecks, advancement opportunities, types of work, schedules, and training are more likely to attempt sexual harassment. Most harassers are not peers, they are usually managers or older employees.

How Can I Fight Against Sexual Harassment?

Retail employees who face workplace sexual abuse and harassment can look to certain resources for help. A first step is to recognize the signs of sexual harassment. Sometimes, sexual harassment might not be obvious.

Persistent flirting or requiring female employees to perform administrative tasks, like taking dictation and ordering food for events that do not fall under their job descriptions, are more subtle examples. More obvious ones may include passing over a highly-qualified female employee for a job and hiring a questionably-qualified male for the same position, sending pornographic emails, or stalking.

Before accepting a new job, it makes sense to read over the company’s employment policies, including how sexual harassment allegations are handled. Many businesses updated their policies after the #MeToo movement began, but others have not. The Human Resources Department should have this information readily accessible. If sexual harassment does occur, contacting a knowledgeable employment lawyer can be helpful.

Cherry Hill Employment Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Offer Compassionate, Trusted Legal Representation to Sexually Harassed Employees

Unfortunately, sexual harassment is prevalent in the retail industry and other low-wage industries. It is important that sexually harassed workers fight against their abusers. If you are expiring sexual harassment at work, one of our Cherry Hill employment lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. can help. Complete our online form or call us at 215-569-1999 for a free consultation. Located in Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout South Jersey, including Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Marlton, Moorestown, and Mount Laurel.

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