Erica* thought she’d found a mentor. After starting a new job at a small public relations agency, she was ecstatic when one of the partners took an interest in her and her career. “We’d go on walks, go to lunch, things like that,” she says.
But soon, the partner started asking about her dating life and making lewd comments. One afternoon, they were wearing rubber gloves while preparing food for an event. The partner snapped his glove, Erica says, and asked if she was ready for her gynecological exam. Another time, in front of the entire office, he told her he wouldn’t take her to client meetings while her hair was styled in braids (Senegalese twists, to be exact). After that, she stopped going on walks with him and asked to work on other accounts so she could avoid him, two moves she says blocked her promotion. “One of the accounts I shared with him also happened to be the only one I was the lead on,” she says. “I had to get away from him, but that made it harder for me to show that I can be a leader.”
As soon as she could, Erica found a new job. But ultimately, her time working for the wannabe gynecologist cost her a lot (literally): She got a small $1,000 salary bump at her new job, but it would take at least another year of proving herself at her new agency before she could even hope to jump up to the next level and land the $10,000 raise that would come with it.
Like bed bugs and cystic acne, the gender wage gap is maddeningly persistent.
Sound familiar? It might, if you’re also someone who’s had to leave a job over sexual harassment. What happened to Erica is something you might call the predator tax, a phenomenon that research suggests is far from uncommon, and may ultimately be a major contributor to the gender wage gap.
Ah yes, the wage gap. Is there anything more exasperating, more anxiety-inducing, more enraging than this haunting number? Like bed bugs and cystic acne, the gender wage gap is maddeningly persistent. After making major gains in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, American women’s wages have hovered at 80% — or roughly 80 cents for every dollar earned by men — for almost three decades now. For women of color the gap is even wider, with Black women making just 67 cents for every dollar white men earn; Latinx women make just 54.
The reasons the wage gap exist are myriad and ridiculously complex. The number is essentially a statistical magic trick, a way of boiling down and averaging out every layer of everyday sexist, racist, circumstantial bullshit we all experience to varying degrees into a number we can use to both describe our general collective position as female workers in this economy and to measure our progress. It’s at once a useful measure of very real effects on wages (education, experience, career choice, family leave policies, discrimination, etc.), as well as a confusing one that leaves so much of the story out.
Researchers have acknowledged for ages that harassment probably plays some role, but due to underreporting it remains very difficult to quantify its actual impact. Until recently, sexual harassment was largely considered to be an old-school barrier of a bygone era. The real problems were mostly pregnancy and parenting-related — or so we thought. But after months of high-profile revelations about decades-long abuse scandals in almost every industry, it’s certainly starting to seem like the effects of harassment on the wage gap are much, much larger than we thought.
For starters, we already know that having babies is not the only thing that keeps women from leaning in to those higher-paid senior positions. “There is a popular assumption that those who are in the most vulnerable positions are at the greatest risk of sexual harassment, but the risk actually grows as women rise the ranks,” says Heather McLaughlin, PhD, an assistant professor and sociologist at Oklahoma State University. “We call it the power paradox.”
This finding comes from a 2012 study Dr. McLaughlin worked on that looked at how the risk of experiencing sexual harassment changes for women who become supervisors. After looking at survey data that traced the lives and career trajectories of more than 1,000 men and women from high school to their early 30s, the researchers found that female supervisors were 138% more likely to experience harassing behaviors, a rate of harassment that is 73% higher than it is for women in non-supervisory roles. (When looking at race also, the researchers found that women of color were overall more likely to experience harassing behaviors, which compounded similarly as they gained more seniority.)
What this amounts to is punishment for rising in the ranks, Dr. McLaughlin says. “For women who are in a position that most directly threatens men’s power, sexual harassment is one tool that might be used to put them in place.” In other words, if a man doesn’t like having a woman bossing him around, a common reaction is that he objectifies her as a way to belittle her and re-assert his position of power.
What’s more: The predator tax is not limited to high-achievers. According to another of Dr. McLaughlin’s studies, women who are sexually harassed at work, supervisors and not, are 6.5 times more likely to leave their jobs compared with women who aren’t. By using the same survey data, researchers found that among those who said they experienced unwanted touching or at least two non-physical behaviors like lewd comments, 80% said they left their jobs within two years. Worse is the fact that the women who left those jobs tended to make a lateral move (as Erica did) or to even take pay cuts, landing in less lucrative positions or industries.
The bottom line: “When women are pushed out of jobs, they give up opportunity for advancement,” Dr. McLaughlin says. “When we talk about [why women leave the workforce], sexual harassment is not usually a part of that conversation. But because women are forced out of jobs because of it, that influences their career attainment.”
Like any tax, the predator tax also has reverberating consequences beyond just the money coming out of your pocket. Taxes can also influence behavior. We tax cigarettes because we want people to think twice before they light up. We implemented the individual mandate to make sure people bought into the health insurance market. Likewise, the predator tax keeps women from even considering certain industries or jobs, solely based on the threat of sexual harassment.
Take Sharon*, for example, a neuroscientist currently doing post-doctoral research in a lab at a northeastern university. While visiting PhD programs early in her career, Sharon was excited to find that a researcher she greatly admired appeared to be interested in having her join his team. “He seemed like he was really recruiting me. I really liked it because it felt like he wanted me there, of course,” she says. “But then at the meet-and-greet with the other PhD students, I mentioned that I wanted to work with this guy, and the students were all immediately like, ‘No, he has a reputation.’ ‘He’s a known creep.’”
Sharon went on to get her PhD at another school. But this wasn’t the last time she’d feel the need to dodge a creep, and as a result, limit her options: It happened two more times when she was looking at post-docs. It’s impossible to know what would have happened if she were a man who didn’t need to make these calculations. It’s also completely possible these researchers had no ill intention, of course. But for Sharon, it just wasn’t worth the risk. “It’s already hard enough to be taken seriously as a woman in this field,” she says.
This is an example of how sexual harassment may help reinforce what’s known as “occupational gender segregation,” which research shows is a major contributor to the wage gap, explains Ariane Hegewisch, the program director of employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. This term refers to the tendency for men to work in traditionally male industries that pay more (finance and manufacturing for example), and for women to work in traditionally female roles that pay less (healthcare administration and childcare), Hegewisch says.
Once again, it’s not just highly educated high-achievers like Sharon who have to make these calculations, either. This happens throughout the economy, at all levels. Take a job like truck driving, Hegewisch says. Truck-driving is an in-demand, middle-skill job that’s almost exclusively done by men. Only between 5% and 7% of all truck drivers are women, even at a time when the industry is facing a worker shortage and people are actively looking to recruit female drivers. The median annual wage for a trailer-tractor truck driver was $41,340 in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yes, that’s a few thousand dollars less than the overall average median salary for U.S. workers, but it’s far more than what you can make as a preschool teacher ($28,970 median annual salary), a female-dominated profession that requires a similar amount of education (sometimes more, in fact).
In order to become a licensed truck driver, you have to do quite a bit of on-the-job training with an experienced trucker, going on days-long cross-country drives one-on-one with your trainer. “For women in this industry, this means being trained by a man,” Hegewisch says. And indeed, the bad experiences of female truckers and trainees are well documented, with women truckers reporting severe instances of unwanted advances and sexual assault during training.
What’s more, according to data from the Center for American Progress, 5% of harassment claims received by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 2005 and 2015 came from within the transportation industry. That puts it in the top 10 job categories for harassment, which is notable considering, again, there are so few women who work in trucking in the first place. “Even after you start working, all the truck stops are all men. So if you’re a young woman interested in this type of job, you can just imagine what your parents or your partner or relatives might say about this: ‘You can’t work in this type of environment,’” Hegewisch says.
Of course, there are plenty of other reasons women might not want to drive a rig for a living: the long trips away from home alone are good enough reason to pick something else. But the point is we don’t make career decisions in a vacuum. What this boils down to is that just the threat of male violence can stand in the way of equal opportunities for women. When you look at it this way, how weird is it that we simply accept this as a given?
In some ways the solution to all of this is very simple: The objectification of women, the nasty “jokes,” the unwanted advances, the sexually charged power plays, the groping, and the assaults — all the outgrowths of a hostile culture of misogynistic violence — have to stop, period. Just imagine how much of the wage gap would just, poof, disappear if sexual harassment wasn’t a thing women had to worry about?
At this point, we still don’t know for sure how much, cautions Jessica Schieder, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute. We know it plays some role in women’s pay disparity, but it’s far from the only factor. In order to reach pay equality, we are going to have to also eradicate (conscious and unconscious) gender bias, make family leave fair and accessible, and fix the unequal division of labor at home. But even if sexual harassment is just one cause of the larger issue of gender inequality reflected by the magic mirror that is the wage gap, it’s nonetheless one we must contend with. At the end of the day, if you have a bedbug problem, you have to move past just lamenting the bites — you’ve got to get rid of every last one of the bugs.