Sarah Polley's “Alias Grace,” a new Netflix series based on Margaret Atwood’s riveting 1996 novel about an Irish-Canadian immigrant maid convicted of the murder of her employer and his lover, is a perfect fit for this Harvey Weinstein moment — a soul-wrenching story of what can happen to a female in the workplace where men wield the power.
The series, set in the mid-19th century, explores the horrendous cost to both individuals and to society when men can demand sexual favors from women in their employ as casually as they order their tea. Today, with the trapdoor blown off the dark cellar where women still sit and watch their contributions and careers dissolve as men treat them as objects, the most poignant takeaway from “Alias Grace” is how little has changed.
What is the cost of talents wasted, output stymied, careers derailed? We don’t know the full answer, because up-to-date research on the economic impact of sexual harassment is scandalously lacking.
Discussion of economic effects of harassment now typically centers on the cost to companies of lawsuits and settlements. One 1988 survey found that a typical Fortune 500 company lost $6.7 million a year due to the absenteeism, low productivity and staff turnover resulting from sexual harassment — which is more than $14 million in 2017 dollars.
But we need to know more about the cost to women themselves — the effect on wages, career losses and the overall financial consequences. This information is crucial if we are to move forward — in part because women who pursue legal action are asked to show measurable harm, which requires reliable data.
In “Alias Grace,”the teenaged Grace tries her best to learn the ropes: Never let your guard down. Try not to be noticed, especially by men of higher status. But it’s no use: Over and over, she finds herself the object of the careless and often sadistic sexual attention of the men who control her livelihood. Each time she tries to better her circumstances, she is caught in an implacable machine of exploitation that threatens not only her employment, but her sanity and, ultimately, her freedom.
Surely we’re now beyond all that. Right? Wrong.
According to a 2015 survey conducted by Cosmopolitan magazine, one in three American women ages 18-34 attests to sexual harassment on the job. Among respondents, fields with the highest levels were food service and retail. Significant harassment, however, was also reported in the nation’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs. It was evident in the legal profession, as well as in arts and entertainment.
More than 70 percent of women surveyed who said they had been harassed did not officially report it. Data compiled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggests why: Half of all claims of sexual harassment in the United States result in no charges of any kind.
We might expect women with little education who wait tables or clean houses to be particularly vulnerable. But educated, professional women? Turns out they are frequently targeted, too.
We can see from the whirlwind of recent journalistic accounts that women, whether in New York or Silicon Valley or Hollywood, often face the same timeworn script in which a man who holds the key to their advancement pushes sexual boundaries, forcing them to dance along a tightrope and hope that with some magical combination of skill and luck they will be able to make their way.
Sociologists Heather McLaughlin, Christopher Uggen, and Amy Blackstone have produced one of the few recent pieces of research on how sexual harassment impacts women economically, focusing on those who are targeted early in their careers.
They found women who had been harassed are far more likely to change jobs than those who didn’t. Such women also tended to change industries and cut their work hours following incidents. All these shifts can upset a career trajectory, especially, the researchers note, when disruptions happen early in the women’s career. And the researchers found that women, compared to men, experience far more serious effects from interruptions to their work path.
Sexually harassed women reported greater financial distress two years later than those who were not targeted. The authors of the study cited a willingness among targets to take an economic hit in order to escape harassment, and they often endured financial strain due to unemployment, career uncertainty, diminished hours or pay and anxiety about starting a new job. The overall impact, they found, is comparable to a serious injury or illness, incarceration or assault.
They also found that many women have suffered long-term career effects as they lowered their aspirations and narrowed their field of opportunity to avoid a repeat of the degrading experience. Those who stood up to hostile work environments, meanwhile, were often penalized with career stagnation and ostracization — even if they were not themselves the targets of the harassment.
You might imagine that women who reach high positions would finally be free of being reduced to sexual objects — but, amazingly, that is not the case. Women who obtain power in the workplace, particularly in male-dominated environments, appear to be even more likely to be harassed, as a study by sociologists at the University of Maine and University of Minnesota showed.
Researchers theorized that perpetrators were motivated less by sexual desire than an urge to exert control and domination over these women who were viewed as a threat to male privilege. A sexual comment or grope can telegraph a very powerful message to high-ranking women: Get back in your place.
"Alias Grace” has given us a penetrating artistic portrait of the harm caused by sexual harassers, even as the horror of the Weinstein allegations has issued a wake-up call.
Now social scientists can help us understand how to measure what women — and the families, businesses and lives that depend on them — pay for continuing sexual harassment in their work lives and the scope of the terrible damage it leaves in its wake.
Lynn Stuart Parramore is a cultural theorist who studies the intersection between culture and economics. Her work has appeared at Reuters, Lapham’s Quarterly, Salon, VICE, Huffington Post and others.