Over the past few years, the media has started to cover more workplace exploitation cases experienced by women, thanks to the rising popularity of the #MeToo movement. According to the Center for American Progress, more than one-quarter of sexual harassment cases occur within low-wage jobs held by women. Women, especially women of color, are more likely to take lower-wage jobs, in which their fear of losing their job leads them to stay silent about sexual harassment.
While women of color are less likely to speak up, there is another group that is even more likely to remain silent about sexual harassment: female high school workers. Female students who take on a part-time job during high school are often unclear on what warrants as sexual harassment. Thus, they are more likely to be unaware of the moments when they are being sexually harassed. They are also afraid that if they confront their employer about it, they risk losing a job they need, a job that will help pay for college tuition, family bills, and other educational expenses.
When I asked many of my female classmates of what constitutes as sexual harassment, many of them only referred to extreme situations, such as rape of molestation. It was clear that they were unaware of the official definition, as classified by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as unwelcome verbal and physical advances and requests made in the workplace. While such advances and requests may not be overtly sexual in nature, they can still be extremely offensive and damaging to the individual, which is why all sexual harassment cases should be taken seriously.
Upon reading this definition of sexual harassment, I felt more compelled to speak about my own experiences with sexual harassment. Over the summer, I took a job at the Farmer’s Market to help my parents with financial struggles caused by the pandemic. There, I was underpaid by my own employer because I was not “smiling” enough. To make matters worse, I was told that I was hired because of my “physique.”
I tried to confront my employer about being underpaid, but he ignored my concerns. I felt humiliated that he viewed me and other female minority coworkers as objects, hired to simply attract more customers to the booth. Frustrated with his blatant dismissal of my situation, I had no choice but to leave this job, for I refused to be harassed any longer.
I know I am not the only high school minor that has been exploited and harassed at the workplace. One study published in Sage Journals found that of high school students who held part-time jobs, 2 in 3 girls and 1 in 3 boys reported being sexually harassed at work, 61% reported that they were harassed by their coworkers, followed by 19% by their supervisors and 18% by their customers.
Studies show that students who are sexually harassed are more likely to experience higher levels of stress leading to academic withdrawal. School absences and symptoms of depression could even show up 10 years after the incident. Not only can this affect the student’s grades and attendance, but it can also leave the student feeling vulnerable, assuming that sexual harassment in the workplace is even “normal.”
Sexual harassment within the working environment amongst teens must be brought more into light. Fortunately, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California at Berkeley have created websites for young workers, where they can find a variety of resources for sexual harassment and workplace rights.
I believe that promoting this issue and available resources is the best way to prevent further sexual harassment from affecting teenage workers.