To tackle sexual harassment, we need to target the system, not just individuals


If we really cared about the systemic harassment of female workers, former Governor Andrew Cuomo would have been held accountable long ago – due to his very public and widespread failures in this regard. Fortunately, Governor Kathy Hochul has a historic opportunity to bring about systemic change.

We talk about sexism and misogyny as systemic issues, yet more often than not we target our anger at individual behavior. This is understandable on one level; institutional patterns of sexism in hiring and promotions, for example, are not as straightforward or salacious as a governor manipulating the staffing patterns of his police officers to engage in sexual abuse. Yet systemic sexism is more pervasive and pernicious. In the United States, women are routinely humiliated and discriminated against by systems, institutions, and policies that keep us at the bottom of the ladder.

Ironically, this is a point that Cuomo himself made in 2017. When asked by a reporter about his administration’s policies against sexual harassment, Cuomo repulsed, “It’s not [just]government is society…. It’s systemic, it’s societal. It is not a person in a field. His intimidating response was not well received politically. To deal with the outcry, Cuomo said he would consider ending lower-than-minimum wages for tipped workers in New York City – particularly in order to tackle rampant sexual harassment in the restaurant industry.

So it came as a shock when, in 2019, Cuomo signed an executive order ending pay below minimum wage for all workers in New York City – except those in the restaurant industry. Because their lower wages force them to rely heavily on tips, restaurant workers suffer the hardships. the worst rates sexual harassment from any industry – which has not empire during the pandemic, hundreds of women reporting that they were regularly asked to remove their masks so that men could judge their appearance and tip accordingly. Meanwhile, these women risk their lives for lower and lower tips. Cuomo could have solved this problem with a simple executive action. But he did not do it.

Which didn’t generate near the level of press fury or public outrage over Cuomo’s personal violations. Why not? Is it because the women who suffer the most under the New York minimum wage for tipped workers are predominantly women of color in low-wage jobs that are somehow less deserving of our sympathy and outrage? Is it because we somehow believe that powerful white men should be judged more on their “private” behavior – that being fierce and even abusive in public policy is tolerable or even desirable for the public? to run a business or govern a state?

Sexism and misogyny, like racism and classism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, are systemic. They require systemic solutions. Hochul can act. As a former tip worker, Hochul, as lieutenant governor, had expressed support for One Fair Wage; now, given the sexual harassment crisis in New York City, she can prioritize using the same executive authority that Cuomo used to end the lower pay of other tipped workers – including the employees of the restoration. That’s why One Fair Wage is high on a short list of policies aimed at addressing sexual harassment that a broad coalition of more than 150 organizations, women leaders, restaurateurs, celebrities and others have urged Hochul to adopt – especially since it comes on the heels of a statewide crisis over sexual harassment.

And all of us – in politics, in the media and in general – must find a way to care as much about systemic injustice as about individual acts of abuse and harassment. Otherwise, we’re never really going to resolve the culture and conditions that allow people like Cuomo to wield power over women in the first place.

Saru Jayaraman from Oakland, California, is co-founder and president of New York-based One Fair Wage and director of the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center.

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