What Makes Retail Workers Uniquely Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment

Retail has a sexual harassment problem, according to a recent analysis by the Center for American Progress. While media attention has largely focused on the prevalence of harassment in politics and media, the study demonstrates its pervasiveness across all industries, but particularly in ones with a high number of service-sector workers, says the authors of the analysis. From this data, it’s clear that sexual harassment is not just a problem in for politicians and actors.

The analysis examined a decade’s worth of data around private sector sexual harassment charges filed through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Of the more than 85,000 charges analyzed, 48.3 percent specify the industry in which these claims were made.

Notably, 13.44 percent of the EEOC’s sexual harassment claims were made in retail, which is the second highest percentage after the accomodation and food services industry.

What accounts for this? Experts link the high rate of sexual harassment in retail to the particular vulnerability of its workforce, its low wages, and a hazy, complicated, and sometimes ineffective complaint process following an incident. Retail workers who spoke to Racked cite the same factors when speaking of their experiences with sexual harassment.

Harassers Prey On Vulnerable Workers

Josie Torielli, the Assistant Director of Intervention Programs at the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, connects the high rate of sexual harassment in the retail industry to the demographics of the industry’s workforce. She says that “from what we know about all sexual violence is that it is a crime of power and control, and that usually people who perpetrate these crimes will try to use vulnerabilities against the people that they are targeting.”

In retail, workers tend to be women and women of color, according to Torielli. Being a woman, or a woman of color makes workers more vulnerable to sexual harassment because sexual harassers tend to be “looking for someone who is not going to report or if they do report, are not going to be believed or taken seriously,” she says.

Take, one retail worker, Madeleine. She worked at a hip mall brand in 2014. During that time, she tells Racked she received unwanted and persistent sexualized attention from a male coworker. She says that he would make comments about her body and the way she looked, talk about them dating and married, and even said he would fight her boyfriend for her love. She says he would tell her that her legs looked great or that she looked really good in that dress. “It was so frequent that I was so desensitized to it,” she explains.

What was Madeleine to do? Not much. She felt that the culture and atmosphere were “toxic” and chose not to formally report these comments because she did not think that anyone would take her complaints seriously. One of Madeline’s coworkers confirm her account of these comments, saying she felt this coworker was “a major creep to everybody.”

Another former brand employee, Winnie McNally, worked at a different store than Madeleine but says she also experienced inappropriate behavior. She explains that while she was working, a female manager came over and adjusted her bra strap. “It was really creepy that she felt like she could touch me with no permission…It was pretty gross.”

She did not complain about the incident, but two of her friends who did not work with her confirmed that Winnie had told them about the incident after it happened.

Rachel Laforest is the director of the Retail Action Project, an organization that works to improve industry standards and encourage family-sustaining jobs. In her view, women of all ages are vulnerable, but women of color are especially vulnerable as they tend to have reduced access to resources or a support network. Non-unionized workers also experience additional risk since they may face retaliation when protesting working conditions, as do mature women who rely on their job to support their family, she says.

Adding to this is the uncertainty that may surround a sexual harassment incident. Victims sometimes question whether an experience happened, if they remembered it wrong, whether the incident is not allowed, or whether they are to blame, says Torielli. “Because we have a history of not taking these types of complaints as seriously as they should be, people engage in a process of self-doubt.”

Madeleine’s problems didn’t stop when she left that store; she had a similar incident while working at a retail location for an international tech company. Here, she experienced this confusion that Torilli describes. About one month after she started working, a male coworker began making inappropriate comments to her about her body.

When Madeleine reported the interactions to her manager at the tech store, she explains that she felt like she was being dramatic because “I’m a woman in a type of service industry where you’re expected to be much more submissive.” Still, she says that this manager pursued a punishment for the man, who was in a position above her.

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But Madeleine questions the logic behind the consequences that resulted. While the store leader gave her about a week of paid time off, she says she also worked with the man again in the same capacity.

One of Madeleine’s tech store coworkers confirmed Madeleine’s account, saying that she witnessed the man making comments about her breasts and her butt once or twice. She also confirmed that while she did not witness the actual conversations between Madeleine and management that occured after Madeleine complained, she does remember that Madeleine was given paid time off and that Madeleine told her that she had complained. “She had to leave because she was being harassed instead of the actual harasser.”

Low Wages Exacerbate These Problems

According to the New York Times, full-time employees in retail generally make less than $33,000 a year. The same article states that “42 percent of retail workers earn a low hourly wage — defined as less than two-thirds of the median wage across the economy.”

What’s more, 29 percent of low wage women in retail live in or near poverty, 49 percent of all retail workers are women, and 55 percent of all low-wage retail workers are women, according to a 2014 study in Demos by Amy Traub. On top of that, a 2015 Demos report by Catherine Ruetschlin and Dedrick Asante-Muhammad states that 70 percent of Black and Latino full and part-time retail sales workers earn less than $15 per hour, as compared to 58 percent of white retail workers.

How does this relate to sexual harassment? Harassers tend to target people with a low income, says Torielli. On top of that, she thinks that someone who is economically vulnerable may be less likely to report sexual harassment if it occurs because they do not want to leave or lose their job.

Low wages may shift the power balance towards a potential harasser. As LaForest says, “Those who can control schedules, paychecks, types of work and training and advancement opportunities are most likely to get away with sexual harassment.”

Paula Brantner, a Senior Advisor at Workplace Fairness — an organization that promotes the fair treatment of workers — says similarly that typically harassers are not peers. Instead, they tend to be older, more advanced, or a manager. That can pose a problem because they control the schedule, how many shifts someone is working, or if they are scheduled to work when people tend to spend more money, she says. “They literally can decide whether or not you make enough money to live on.”

This may make workers feel as if they must endure the harassment because “they’re dealing with a person who has that much control over their financial stability and well being,” says Brantner.

Madeleine’s experience lines up with this. She noted a power differential between her and the person she complained about at the tech store. While the man did not have the ability to promote or fire her, he was in a high enough role to be a mentor, and could offer advice and delegate to her. “It was frustrating. It was like this person is a position above me and they can just speak to me like that and put me in such an uncomfortable position,” she says.

This power differential was also present for some retail workers at a local lingerie chain. Racked spoke to former employees there who all describe inappropriate behavior from a female manager who had control over their schedules and thus, how much they made. The gender of this manager shouldn’t be a surprise: Contrary to cultural tropes, harassment isn’t always between a man and a woman.

One woman, Kim (name has been changed), worked at the lingerie store for a little less than a year and described it as “one of the most toxic jobs I’ve had.”

Kim told Racked that this manager would tell her when she got a bikini wax and once even revealed her new wax to Kim. Kim says the manager would also try on a lingerie set and come out from the dressing room to show Kim and other coworkers. She would also tell her “explicit” details about her sex life.

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Two of Kim’s coworkers say they also had similarly uncomfortable experiences with this manager. Like Kim, one coworker, Robyn, (name has been changed) told Racked about the manager showing her vagina while they were alone, ostensibly to show off her bikini wax.

Robyn also said that this manager would try new lingerie when it came in and show a group of her and her coworkers. Robyn says she would then ask the group to take photos of her. Robyn would also hear her talk about sex in graphic detail.

Kate’s (name has been changed) experience started the first time she met this manager. They were on the store and clocked in and the manager bent over and said she felt like she had a UTI. Then, she says she told Kate to always pee after having sex.

Once, after a long day of work, Kate, her manager, and two other coworkers went out to eat. While they were eating, Kate explains that the manager said “I can’t wait to go home and rape my boyfriend.” Kate says that the comment was “really unsettling and also just a crude word to use in anyone’s presence, really, but especially associates or people who are subordinate to you.”

For Kim, one experience in particular sticks out. She had come into work wearing a long, flowy dress. Her manager told her the dress looked good and like she was from the south. Then, Kim says that the manager told her that she should be on a plantation. Kim, who is black, explains that “you don’t say that to anyone. That’s number one.” But also, “you don’t say that to a black female.”

Many of these stories correspond with some of the negative reviews on the company’s GlassDoor page, which was how Racked was initially made aware of these issues.

“I feel like she thinks that because we’re selling lingerie we can be sexual, but different strokes for different folks. Not everyone likes what you like. Not everyone’s comfortable with what you’re going to be comfortable with,” Robyn explains.

Robyn also took issue with the woman’s managerial position. “You shouldn’t push those boundaries especially as a manager.”

For Kate, the problems at the lingerie store were antithetical to the company’s mission to empower their customers. “They have a misconstrued understanding of what women empowerment is.” There’s a difference, she says, between being sexually empowered and talking explicitly about your sex life.

Speaking of her own experience at the hip mall brand — which had a notoriously libertine executive — Madeleine says “it was something I knew — just because of the culture — that nobody would care.”

Often, The Complaint Process Is Murky

Experts say that once someone does report their sexual harassment experience, the response from brands and corporations sometimes does not adequately quell further sexual harassment or make the woman feel secure. Laura Palumbo, Communications Director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, explains that it’s not that workplaces lack a policy, rather the policies in place are not comprehensive.

Palumbo describes it as a “check-the-box mentality” where employers check the box of being compliant with federal law. “An employer may have a policy on paper, but it is not what employees see in action when they are in that work environment,” she says. “Their policy on paper may say that they are a workplace that does not tolerate sexual harassment but if all levels of an organization aren’t being guided by that value then it really is just a piece of paper.”

To that end, experts say that the complaint process can be murky, too. Brantner and Torielli both say that often, workers do not know if there is a reporting process and how to initiate it. In part, that’s because in the retail industry, corporate headquarters and its HR department are not located where individual stores are, says Brantner. That means that employees may not know who to complain to, or there isn’t someone in their store who they can talk to about an incident, she says.

According to Torielli, a victim may think to themselves, “I just want this behaviour to stop, but I’m not sure entire how to do that, and the system is not entirely set up to support stopping of that behavior.”

That is in line with the experience of the retail workers who spoke to Racked. For example, the three lingerie store employees said they weren’t aware of an HR team at the company. Kim, for her part, felt that “No one really could speak up for themselves.”

Indeed, Kate says she complained multiple times to various people. At one point, she had a meeting with two different managers where she complained about concerns she had about sexual harassment that was being overlooked. But during this meeting, after Kate expressed her concerns, one manager “put her pen down, stopped writing down the things that I was saying, and just told me that ‘sexual assault or harassment in the workplace can only be defined as someone requesting sexual favors in exchange of money or a higher position.”

Furthermore, a 2016 study from the Equal Opportunity Commission on workplace harassment links decentralized workplaces to unhindered harassment. The study explains that in such workplaces, corporate offices are not near front-line employees and first-line supervisors. Managers are therefore not held accountable for their actions and may therefore break workplace rules. They may also not know how to deal with workplace harassment or may choose not to report an incident to corporate headquarters.

On the one hand, the reporting process may be anonymous and involve calling a number, according to Torielli. For a worker, this impersonal process casts confusion over how seriously a complaint will be taken, who receives the complaint, or where this information goes, she says.

On the other end of the spectrum is a small store, where complaining may feel too personal. Here, Torielli says, it may not be clear who a worker should make a report to. On top of that, when only one or two people are in charge, the person who receives the complaints and has the authority to take action might be the person doing the harassing, says Brantner.

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This lines up with Kate’s experience at the lingerie store, who explains that “You can’t go to your manager because a lot of times it’s just your manager you’re complaining about.”

While the international tech company could not comment on this specific complaint given the anonymity of the source, a spokesperson did say that they take complaints seriously and have a harassment and non-retaliation policy in place. They say that when a sexual harassment complaint is made, they do a thorough investigation. If the employee does not feel comfortable being in the store while the investigation takes place, the tech company says they are given the option of taking paid time off. If the company determines a violation has occurred, they say they take prompt corrective action.

The tech company’s spokesperson also says that they have different mechanisms that employees can report to, including HR representatives, an HR helpline, Employee Relations, or management. A spokesperson says that they can also contact the Business Conduct helpline to raise an anonymous complaint. Additionally, the company says it has HR representatives around the country as well as an Employee Relations department that they say is dedicated to investigating sexual harassment claims.

For victims, the issues may not end once a complaint is made. After you navigate the complaint process, Brantner explains that workers have to worry about the consequences, whether they will be protected, or if their job and financial security are at risk.

Indeed, Madeleine explains that her low paycheck at the hip mall brand made her feel worthless. “If for some reason [the complaint] is not well received and I lose my job, I currently only make [under $15] an hour.”

Similarly, Kim says that while she complained about some of the incidences, she didn’t complain about many of the incidences because she didn’t want to lose her job.

What’s more, Brantner says that workers may not have confidence that the complaint process will offer a useful solution. Victims have to additionally contend with the fear that the harasser may find out about the complaint and make the situation worse, Torielli says.

For Madeleine, while she was not worried about being fired for complaining about the incident at tech company’s retail location, she did worry that they would value the man more. She was nervous that she would still be made to work with him after complaining “and put in positions that make me feel uncomfortable, so I would have to quit.”

While employees navigate these issues, experts agree that to better support employees, companies need to strengthen their processes and educate their workforce. Palumbo argues that all employers need a policy on how they respond to sexual harassment, but on top of that, they also need policies on how they will investigate sexual harassment claims, multiple ways to report harassment, and training for employees, supervisors, and leadership. And crucially, she says companies need policies around disciplining sexual harassers.

On top of that, companies should be talking to employees about what to do when they witness harassment, recommends Palumbo. “If there is a dynamic that is going on that is unhealthy, instead of letting that dynamic continue to foster and graduate to forms of sexual harassment and harm, those behaviors are being effectively addressed.”

By establishing such an all-encompassing approach with more protections for victims, experts hope to reduce the likelihood of sexual harassment in retail. And in doing so, one can hope to reduce sexual harassment, no matter the industry, demographic, or wage.

Editor: Meredith Haggerty

Fact checker: Laura Bullard


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