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#MeToo’s Focus on White Celebrities Forces Blue Collar Women of Color to Ask #WhatAboutUs

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A lot of overdue attention has been focused on women speaking out about sexual harassment and assault in their workplaces. But for the most part, those industries have been largely limited to entertainment and now politics, and the people being heard are high-profile, either celebrities themselves or someone abused by a public figure.

But sexual harassment doesn’t just happen in Hollywood. As pretty much every woman in every profession (and non-professional setting) can attest: it happens everywhere. The #MeToo movement has been a powerful outlet for a lot of women, but those at its center are mostly white, famous women, despite the movement being originally conceived of by a black woman. This has left many others that don’t fit that highly visible description to ask #WhatAboutUs.

The New York Times has run an in-depth profile on a group of these women: the female employees at the Ford manufacturing plant in Chicago (where that hashtag was formed). The women who work there are supposed to be protected by their union (and, hypothetically, the basic decency of their coworkers), but that’s not the reality they face. Back in the 1990s, women at two Chicago plants reached a settlement through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for racist and sexist harassment. As the NYT describes it,

Bosses and fellow laborers treated them as property or prey. Men crudely commented on their breasts and buttocks; graffiti of penises was carved into tables, spray-painted onto floors and scribbled onto walls. They groped women, pressed against them, simulated sex acts or masturbated in front of them. Supervisors traded better assignments for sex and punished those who refused.

Ford had to pay $22 million in the settlement, with $9 million of that going to more than 100 women. The company pledged to make changes, and sexual harassment trainings were implemented. But the improvements were shortlived. By 2015, half of the complaints filed with the EEOC regarding Ford operations came from the Chicago plant.

I recommend reading the full NYT article, where you can also listen to audio clips of the women telling their stories. They describe the same sorts of behavior their predecessors experienced: sexual comments, propositions, superiors and colleagues pressing their crotches against them and exposing themselves (and since this is a new era, obviously you can add dick pics to the list). Women were offered better jobs in exchange for sex, and describe being punished if they refused.

As in a lot of workplaces, “there were plenty of consensual affairs and flirtations” at Ford. But when NYT says “some women used sex to win favors from the overwhelmingly male hierarchy,” that is not the same as a consensual relationship. That’s coercion.

Bosses rewarded those who acquiesced to their advances by doling out cushier jobs or punished those who spurned them, requiring them to do more taxing, even dangerous work.

Miyoshi Morris gave in to a supervisor’s leverage, and was filled with shame. She had been struggling to find day care centers for her children that were open early enough for her to make her 6 a.m. shift. By her account, a manager in the paint department told her she was in trouble because of tardiness. He could help her, she recalled him saying, if she came to his house on a day off he arranged.

She agreed, and had sex with him.

“I was so lost, afraid, and realizing I had children to care for,” she said. Afterward, she said, her attendance record was no longer a problem, and she received better assignments. She remembers thinking, “Where else are you going to go and make this kind of money?”

As for that union that was supposed to offer protections, they were of little help. The leadership is mostly male, and “often met their calls for help with hostility, resistance or inaction.” They discouraged women from coming forward and filing complaints, and required witnesses to have been present if they were to proceed with any course of action. (Later, they began believing women if there were multiple “credible” complaints about the same man.)

But like in so many other cases, For officials still viewed the harassment at the plant as “episodic, not systemic.” And that makes it hard for women to be taken as seriously as they deserve.

One woman said a representative downplayed a co-worker’s vulgar commentary about her body, saying, “That’s just him — the man has no filter.” Another was told not to bother filing a report against a union representative who forcibly kissed her, saying it was her word against his.

Tonya Exum, the Army veteran who reported being groped, recalled a union representative saying: “It’s not sexual harassment. He only did it one time.”

In August of 2017, Ford and the EEOC reached another settlement, this one for $10 million. However, due to the strict confidentiality terms, “it does not reveal details of what it found, who those accused of harassment were and which workers were involved — something some Ford women want to know.”

Like the last time, the company will be monitored by the EEOC. They say they’re looking for a “culture change” within the company and hopefully, this time it will stick. Since 2015, “Ford has disciplined 27 Chicago employees for sexual harassment and terminated five managers since January 2015 … Others have received lengthy suspensions.”

But as men like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and TJ Miller and so many others know by now, it’s a lot easier to make sure people aren’t being harassed and silenced when the world is paying attention. And it’s easier to pay attention when there is a familiar face attached to an issue. While the women facing this kind of harassment and assault in Hollywood should not be ignored, we need to find ways to make sure women everywhere can find that same level of public support.

I’m so glad the New York Times put our collective eye on this epidemic. Now, I suppose, we just need to do it with literally every industry on the planet and we’ll be just fine.

[Update 12/20/2017 4:05 pm]: A representative from Ford has requested the following statement be added regarding their stance on sexual harassment and discrimination:

Ford does not tolerate sexual harassment or discrimination. We take those claims very seriously and investigate them thoroughly. We have a comprehensive approach to prevent and address sexual harassment and discrimination at our facilities, including:

  • Required training for all new hires that addresses Ford’s anti-harassment policy and the company’s expectations for employee conduct
  • An anti-harassment and retaliation policy, with a number of ways employees can report violations, including an 800 number, a phone app, and an open door policy
  • Comprehensive investigation of harassment allegations with discipline up to and including termination
  • A policy requiring salaried employees to disclose a romantic or familial relationship with another employee in their reporting chain or whose employment conditions they could influence

In addition, more than two years ago, we began taking further actions at our Chicago plants. Those actions include:

  • Conducting more than 20,000 hours of mutual respect training for all hourly and salaried employees
  • Providing additional leadership and diversity training for all salaried employees
  • Delivering additional training on how to properly investigate harassment and discrimination claims for our Human Resources teams
  • Increasing Human Resources staff by more than 30 percent to provide investigations support and oversight, including a staff member that oversees both plants and reports directly to Personnel Relations at Ford headquarters in Dearborn
  • Incorporating a performance objective for senior plant leadership teams and Human Resources personnel to actively promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace and take appropriate actions to ensure compliance with anti-harassment and equal opportunity policies
  • In August, we agreed with the EEOC to provide an effective method for employees to receive a financial award if an independent panel agrees with their harassment or discrimination complaint

(via NYT, image: Shutterstock)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.

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