A new Washington Post-ABC poll surveying Americans’ attitudes toward sexual harassment found that women of color were more likely than other groups to say that sexual harassment in the workplace was a “serious problem.” Among those surveyed, 86 percent of nonwhite women said that workplace sexual harassment was a serious problem. That was considerably more than their white female peers, of whom 72 percent felt similarly.
The poll was shared in a recent Washington Post newsletter centered on identity.
But what many people may find surprising, considering how white women have typically been front and center in the #MeToo movement, is that men of color were more likely than white women to label workplace sexual harassment a “serious problem.”
A marginally higher number of nonwhite men, 74 percent, said that sexual harassment at work was a serious issue.
A couple of important caveats around this one response. First, this was a follow-up question; the previous one asked respondents whether they thought sexual harassment in the workplace was a problem. This means we’re looking at a pool of people who already acknowledged that sexual trespasses at work do exist and are a concern.
Also, the vast majority of these groups do consider workplace sexual harassment to be an important issue. For example, white male respondents were the least likely of all the groups to say that sexual harassment was a serious problem—but it was still a clear majority at 63 percent. That’s important not to lose sight of.
But the difference between women of color and the rest of these groups is considerable—and may be explained by the double dose of discrimination that they’re likely to face in the workplace.
The type of sexual harassment nonwhite women face can fold in layers of racial animus. In a recent New York Times piece, black women working at Ford plants reported being “propositioned and denounced as sluts while also being called ‘black bitches’ and other racial slurs.”
And this phenomenon crosses industries. In perhaps the most famous example to come out of Silicon Valley, Ellen Pao, one of the first to blow the whistle on tech’s sexual harassment problems, described how her boss told her “he’d specifically requested an Asian woman for my position. He liked the idea of a ‘Tiger Mom–raised’ woman.” Other Asian-American women have reported being stereotyped and demeaned in similar ways.
But why would white women be less likely than nonwhite men to consider sexual harassment a serious problem? We know from in-depth reporting across business and industries that white women certainly suffer the devastating effects of sexual abuse and misconduct, after all.
The Washington Post-ABC poll doesn’t get into the why of the numbers. But Vlad Medenica, a postdoctoral scholar with GenForward Survey whose work centers on how identity shapes political and social attitudes, offered The Root some direction.
“A potential explanation for some of this may be a history of, or different experiences with, marginalization and how that can then inform not just your perception of things, but your interpretation of different behaviors and actions,” Medenica said. “That plays some role in explaining why some people think this isn’t a problem and some people think this is a problem.”
To put it another way, a marginalized racial identity may make you more sensitive to workplace sexual harassment than your gender identity—even if women are more likely to suffer from sexual abuse in the workplace.
Ain’t that something?