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The industries with the worst sexual harassment problem

The jobs with the most sexual harassment claims aren't glamorous. (Photo by Victor J. Blue)

The casting couch. The holiday party. The black car.

The setting for sexual harassment in the news and popular culture lately is Hollywood or Silicon Valley or Capitol Hill — but researchers say women who work in restaurants and clothing stores tend to encounter more predatory behavior than those in glitzier professions.

“It’s a story people haven’t focused on enough,” said Jocelyn Frye, who studies women’s economic security at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington. “Low-wage workers are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment.”

As Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey dominated headlines last month, Frye dug through 10 years of data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which tracks and investigates sexual harassment claims.

Her research confirmed previous surveys that found workers in food services and retail filed more than three times as many claims as employees in the higher-paying fields of finance and insurance. (Women made the majority of all claims, she noted.)

The EEOC reports, collected between 2005 and 2015, found that about a quarter of sexual harassment complaints came from the service sector, which is dominated by low-wage, mostly female workers.

Frye’s analysis, out this week, also found that nearly three quarters of those filing sexual harassment complaints also reported retaliation, suggesting victims are at high risk of encountering further professional punishment if they come forward.

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“Sometimes low-wage workers are treated as dispensable, and that puts people in a situation where they feel no one believes them,” Frye said, “or if they complain about something, they might be fired instead of be treated like they have a legitimate complaint.”

From 2005 to 2015, the EEOC received about 85,000 sexual harassment complaints. Nearly half stated the worker’s industry.

Of the field-specific charges filed over that decade, 14.23 percent came from the accommodation and food service industry, 13.44 percent came from retail trade and 11.72 percent came from manufacturing — a field where roughly eight in ten workers are men:

Still, the EEOC data doesn't provide a comprehensive look at sexual harassment in the United States. The agency estimates that only 6 to 13 percent of victims ever lodge a formal complaint.

Other studies have shown women who work at restaurants appear to face an especially elevated risk of dealing with unwanted advances at work.

A full 90 percent said they’d encountered come-ons at work and more than half said the incidents happened weekly, according to a 2014 report from the Restaurant Opportunities Center, an organization that supports workers in the restaurant industry.

Such treatment can deliver both economic and emotional blows.

“A significant majority of women workers felt they would experience negative consequences, including job termination if they tried to report sexual harassment from management and customers,” the authors wrote. “As a result of pressure to remain silent about experiencing harassment, many restaurant workers reported deterioration in their emotional well-being, including increased depression and anxiety.”

Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, said despite the attention paid to celebrities recently, sexual harassment happens when “you’re not famous and there’s no one famous to shame.”

“It’s more prevalent in industries that rely on customer service,” Graves said, “where employers have built into their business model the idea that people have to please or in some cases endure harassment.”

Read more:

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