Protecting Workers’ Rights

Focusing on the Rights of Federal Employees

Women of color face barriers in sexual harassment claims

Women of color are more likely to experience sexual harassment, yet less likely to report it.

The dynamic is true across all sectors, including state and federal government jobs. The increased awareness and sympathy in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp doesn’t always translate when the victim of sexual harassment is a minority woman.

What needs to change to make it safe and viable for women of color to report harassment?

Minority women are still leery of coming forward

Numerous surveys and studies indicate women of color experience sexual harassment at a higher rate than white women. This is especially true in low-wage occupations such as food service and housekeeping. So why don’t formal harassment complaints reflect this?

  • Women of color are both fetishized and marginalized, making them frequent targets for harassment. This is especially true if they are isolated in the workplace. I’m the only non-white woman in my whole department. They worry that co-workers or supervisors will not back them up.

  • Dominant culture stereotypes can inhibit investigation of workplace harassment. Asian women are submissive. Black women are dramatic. Latinas are hotheads. Such preconceptions can skew how sexual harassment complaints are perceived and processed by management or HR.

  • Cultural norms also influence women from minority communities, including what they consider harassment and whether to report it. We don’t snitch on our own. You should take it as a compliment. Our people don’t rock the boat. No one will take a black woman seriously.

These external and internal messages get in the way of holding harassers accountable. Instead of focusing on the sexual harassment, the victim is more likely to be doubted or “handled” if she is a woman of color.

More to lose, less to gain

Women from racial and ethnic minorities are already at a disadvantage when it comes to hiring and advancement. Like all women, they have to weigh the risks and rewards when deciding whether to blow the whistle on harassment. But women of color are less likely to be believed and supported, even within the current environment to expose sexual harassment. According to The Alliance, for every black woman who reports a sexual assault, there are 15 black victims who don’t even bother to go to police.

Women of color are also more likely to suffer retaliation after reporting sexual harassment – transfers, poor performance reviews, denial of security clearance, or even termination. And so the self-dialogue becomes how much harassment they are willing to put up with.

You do not have to fight this battle alone.

The inequality won’t change overnight, but the needle is moving in the right direction. Women of color do have legal recourse to stop workplace sexual harassment and pursue civil damages. An employment law attorney can help document the harassing behavior, identify allies (or reluctant witnesses) and initiate a formal sexual harassment complaint through the EEOC or other channels.

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