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Sexual Harassment in the Auto Industry (and, you know, in general)

So there is a pretty common and prominent refrain around the gender wage gap, especially here in Wyoming. It goes something like this: "There is a gender wage gap because women take jobs that pay less." Apples and oranges, or so the story goes.

First things first.

Here in Wyoming, as everywhere, women are paid less than men even when doing the same exact job. Even in industries where the vast and overwhelming majority of the workers are women. (See: nursing.)

But that common and prominent refrain really serves more of a close-up magic, "don't look here, look here" kind of role in discussions of women's economic empowerment. Because, the truth is, when women go, in large numbers, into fields that were previously male-dominated, the wages go down. (See: computer programming.) And, in addition to that inconvenient and somewhat damning fact, women who *try* to go into jobs in higher-paying, male-dominated industries face significant obstacles and penalties.

That's what we're here to look at today. And Elon Musk and Tesla give us a pretty good opening to do that.

On Thursday, Jessica Barraza filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court in Alameda County, "alleging Tesla fostered a climate of sexual harassment at its Fremont, California factory, where she says she was subjected to catcalling and aggressive physical touching." Much has been written in the intervening 48 hours (here, here, here, and here to name a few) and many have pointed out that Elon Musk set the tone that this is allowable--even preferable--behavior (here and here, for example).

We want to point out additional, so far overlooked, context for this allegation of sexual harassment: The auto industry itself.

Back in 2017, the National Automotive Dealers Association (NADA) got back the results of its annual survey to dealers. The results included a flashing red light: 96% of all female sales associates had left their jobs in the industry in the prior year. Yup, you read that right: ALMOST 100% OF ALL WOMEN SELLING CARS FOR AUTO DEALERS HAD QUIT.

Given that the industry's own research indicates that women make 85% of all car buying decisions and that female sales associates were both more successful at selling cars and frequently better liked than their male counterparts, this wasn't just a concern because of gender justice or parity, this signaled real financial peril for dealers.

Automotive News--the self-described "trusted voice of the automotive industry," which is to say, an internal publication for auto dealers not a pub for enthusiasts--took note of the results and wanted to understand why in the hell that was the case. So they turned to the researchers at Stanford University who had recently created and conducted Elephant in the Valley, a methodologically sound survey of women in Silicon Valley designed to understand sexism and harassment in the tech industry. Together, they generated Project XX.

Project XX conducted a survey of women at all levels and in all segments of the auto industry. Nearly 900 women took the survey. The results (article here, paywalled; survey results here; related articles here, here, and here) were eye opening:

And damning:

As one Project XX respondent pointed out: "Cars have been coupled with sexual language for so long, it's hard to get men to change the way they talk about cars and women."

And it isn't just the auto industry.

Women working in male-dominated work environments are subject to sexual harassment--including unwanted advances and physical touching--at unacceptably high rates. Pew has an extensive survey unpacking the harassment that women working in male-dominated industries (where the wages are higher).

The economic impact on women who are sexually harassed in the workplace cannot be understated. Traditionally, we've been told (conditioned?) to think of and talk about and respond to sexual harassment as though it is sexual. But it is about power and economics. And the latest research on sexual harassment in the workplace is just now starting to understand and reflect that.

The Institute for Women's Policy Research has a new report, "Paying Today and Tomorrow: Charting the Financial Costs of Workplace Sexual Harassment," that delves into the economic impact of sexual harassment (here). The lifetime costs of workplace sexual harassment and retaliation were particularly high for those pushed out of well-paid, male-dominated occupations, reaching $1.3 million.

The IWPR report also highlights that:

  1. Sexual harassment contributes to the gender wage gap.

  2. The research confirms common risk factors of sexual harassment and retaliation, including work in male-dominated industries.

  3. Policies designed to prevent workplace sexual harassment are not working.

New research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (really, could there be a more academic or "neutral" source than that?) affirms that existing laws don't really work and women are basically left to fend for themselves. The threat of retaliation by employers (read: firing women) for reporting is high. And women don't have enough economic opportunities to risk losing their job if they report when they are sexually harassed.

The paper, "Why is Workplace Sexual Harassment Underreported? The Value of Outside Options Amid the Threat of Retaliation," also investigates the economic conditions under which women endure or report sexual harassment in the workplace. The authors (both men) understand that all workers--including women--are rational actors in the marketplace and are making decisions accordingly. Unfortunately for women, these choices are, all too often. Can I endure being touched against my will at work again so that I can continue to feed my family?

(You can download the full paper down below.)

So, what have we learned? First and foremost: The gender wage gap is real. Sexual harassment is a financial penalty. Existing laws don't work.

And what are we supposed to do about it?

Here is where we say: Read the research. Better understand what is actually happening. This isn't a situation of he-said-she-said. This isn't about sex at all. These aren't stories of women who used to date men they worked with reporting things that were consensual. No. None of that. This is about whether or not women actually have equal opportunity to succeed in the marketplace based on their skills and abilities and aptitude for their jobs.

And, as we always point out, when women succeed, our communities do better because women reinvest at higher rates buying groceries and patronizing local stores and going to the doctor. When we allow women full participation in the economy, we all reap the benefits.

Workplace Sexual Harassment.NBER.2021
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