#MeToo: Counting the Collective Harm of Missing Women’s Work

Posted in: Human Rights

The recent New York Times revelations about Ryan Adams, a powerful musician and music producer, shine a spotlight on the devastating individual costs that sexual harassment and emotional abuse can have on women in the independent music industry. Harassment by the musician caused two musically gifted women—Courtney Jaye and an underage bassist known as Ava—to stop making music, though Courtney has recently resumed. Whereas Courtney lost the internal motivation, Ava could not stomach the risk of being objectified or having to trade sex for career advancement. Other women—like Phoebe Bridgers and Liz Phair—saw their songs and albums shelved due to retaliation once their interpersonal relationships with Adams deteriorated. Yet another woman—Mandy Moore—suggests that Adams’s “controlling behavior [during our marriage] essentially did block my ability to make new connections in the industry during a very pivotal and potentially lucrative time—my entire mid-to-late 20s.”

As a grassroots movement fostered by social media and amplified by traditional journalism, the #MeToo movement has helped countless victims find the courage to share experiences of sexual harassment that might otherwise have gone unreported. Public acts of storytelling like these can galvanize social reform. They can raise public consciousness about a problem, create bonds of mutual concern and commitment to solve it, and help people who lack experience with sexual harassment understand the qualitative nature of its harms. Grassroots developments are especially important to bring attention to problems that have traditionally been denied, normalized, or unduly diminished in importance.

Given its grassroots origins, the early #MeToo movement fits a wider pattern of women’s empowerment movements from around the world, and over the course of world history, which often begin with self-organized efforts of just this kind. Over time, however, successful movements typically evolve to further stages, which give them broader impact, by attractingsupporters and mentors who offered their struggle the credibility they needed, and offered material resources including funds, professional expertise, mentoring, and training for developing necessary skills for members of the movement.” To broaden its support base and deepen public understanding of the harms of sexual harassment, #MeToo may similarly need to form alliances that combine grassroots public storytelling with other modes of knowledge production.

Academic research institutions—and especially those concerned with broader community needs—may prove pivotal at this juncture. This is because academic institutions are especially well positioned to measure the scope of the collective harms generated by sexual harassment and identify the most promising causal interventions to reduce those harms. As an analogy, consider economist and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen’s pathbreaking work More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing. Before he produced this work, it was well known anecdotally that female children were not being born or surviving as often as male children in many parts of the world due to phenomena like sex-selection during pregnancy, femicide, and inadequate care for female children. Individual stories of these problems abounded—and they were heartbreaking. But it took thoughtful econometric modeling and a creative search for reliable indices of the problem for Sen to measure it and establish that there were literally more than 100 million fewer women in the world than there should have been at the time.

Once the jaw-dropping scope of the problem was made clear, it garnered the attention of many more people with a broader range of skill sets. A voluminous secondary literature emerged in which scholars began to develop and test a broader range of causal hypotheses and identify nonobvious causal determinants of missing women. Findings from that broader research program helped scholars propose more effective and highly targeted measures to reduce the problem of missing women. For example, it is now well-accepted that among the causes of missing women are patrilocal marital norms, property laws that create barriers to female ownership and inheritance, and the difficulties that widows face in countries where men are the primary income earners.

But just as there were once more than 100 million missing women in the world, whose absence had never been counted, society is now missing untold contributions of women to many spheres of society due to sexual harassment—and the collective losses of this missing work have not yet been measured. We are left to wonder what great music, art, and literature are missing. We can only speculate about what great advances in technology and the sciences were never produced. What noble social and legal reforms? What innovative goods and services? What advances in wisdom and understanding?

What would it take to foster greater symbiotic relationships between the grassroots #MeToo movement and academic research institutions? With respect to the independent music industry, individual survivors and journalists have already taken some of the first difficult steps. To produce the Adams story, two culture reporters worked for almost five months interviewing survivors and witnesses and identifying patterns of abusive behavior. They decided to publicize what victims took to be “the most damaging and damning parts of their accounts. The reporters thought the story important for popular consumption because it offered added dimension to popular understandings of sexual harassment generated by previous journalistic reports on #MeToo, which had focused largely on abuses in Hollywood. According to the reporters, the Adams story offered a window into a different kind of power structure, where a single powerful “artist can wield just as much power as a large executive: it’s just a matter of their influence and connections.” In addition, the Adams story offered “an example of a complex spectrum of behavior that includes subtler abuses of power that have been harder to document—but are much more common.”

Just a few weeks ago, due in part to growing stories from the #MeToo movement, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released a report on missing women in the recording industry entitled Inclusion in the Recording Studio. Working in a more empirical vein, the report seeks to identify systematic barriers that women face in the music industry and finds that one major obstacle is that women’s advancement is often “inextricably tied to expectations about their gender and sexual availability.” The report also seeks to identify specific causal contributors to sexual harassment in the music industry, which allows it to propose promising structural reforms to diversify the music production and promotion processes, including their power structures. Such reforms include inclusion goals, inclusion riders, and the provision of non-harassing, senior mentors for female artists.

Work on specific industries like this can, in turn, be connected up with broader understandings developed in empirical research conducted over the last several decades on the causes and consequences of sexual harassment. One of the best contemporary syntheses can be found in Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. This 2016 book was authored by a task force of national experts, who synthesize the empirical research as it applies to many industries.

The research demonstrates that experiences of sexual harassment cause not only individual harms to women (such as decreases in mental and physical well-being) but also organizational withdrawal, decreases in organizational commitment, and decreases in productivity and job performance. Organizational withdrawal can come in the form of job withdrawal—as in the cases of Courtney and Ava, who originally quit the music industry altogether. But more often, organizational withdrawal is reflected in work withdrawal, or in distancing oneself from work without actually quitting—as in the case of Mandy Moore, who pursued only minor projects to avoid emotional fallout in her marriage with Adams. Work withdrawal causes decreases in job productivity and workplace output, both of which generate collective losses for organizations and society.

Another finding is that whereas some forms of sexual harassment are motivated by sexual desire, others are better characterized as verbal or nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender without any particular sexual motive. This second type of harassment—sometimes called “gender harassment”—can be reflected in sexist jokes, conscious or unconscious patterns of disregard or exclusion, the ignoring of women’s contributions and accomplishments, and many other forms of gender-based disrespect. These are the types of behaviors that Justice Sotomayor so eloquently described—in the context of race—as “the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’”

Research suggests that in many contexts, this second form of sexual harassment is not only more common but also the larger causal driver of losses in women’s work and productivity. It is, moreover, not only victims but also bystanders and witnesses (especially female ones) whose mental and physical health and productivity are often impaired. Multiple forms of harassment can combine to produce proportionally more severe forms of organizational withdrawal. Hence, women who are members of underrepresented minority populations often face especially severe obstacles to performance, which are associated with larger collective losses for society.

The existing empirical research has also proven helpful in identifying nonobvious causal determinants of sexual harassment. For example, the greatest currently known predictor of sexual harassment lies in organizational climate. Organizations that have male-dominated gender ratios and leadership, and organizations that communicate tolerance of sexual harassment, are most likely to see increased incidents of sexual harassment. Tolerance of sexual harassment is communicated not only by words but often by a constellation of facts. When the leadership of an organization fails to take complaints of sexual harassment seriously, fails to sanction perpetrators adequately using fair procedures, and/or fails to support complainants sufficiently and protect them from retaliation, it communicates tolerance of sexual harassment and adds to collective harms.

Still, empirical research on sexual harassment is in its relative infancy. Despite decades of research in what has traditionally been thought of as a highly specialized or even marginal field, we do not yet know the full scope of the collective losses to society caused by sexual harassment. After canvassing our best empirical insights, the National Academy of the Sciences, Engineering and Medicine freely admits that “no formal economic analysis has yet put a specific dollar amount to the cost of women’s attrition from science, engineering, and medicine because of sexual harassment.” And those are only three industries, out of countless others where women’s work is missing.

We believe that if these missing contributions could be quantified, the result would be staggering. Here is just one line of evidence to suggest why. Though a little known fact, the major organizations committed to reducing all ten of the top ten leading causes of death in the world initially began with grassroots women’s empowerment movements. These movements initially operated largely outside mainstream political and legal institutions, but then blossomed, at some point, into more mainstream organizations like the American Cancer Society, the American Heart and Lung Association, the Red Cross, and Mothers against Drunk Driving. Organizations like these have made great strides in helping to reduce all ten of the most common causes of human death. Had these movements progressed more quickly through the inclusion of women and their contributions in existing organizations, rather than having to proceed through self-organized, informal channels, there is every reason to think that many, many lives would have been saved much sooner.

So when some lament the purported losses to society if predators are exposed and prevented from exerting improper influence in the workplace due to #MeToo, the response should be to call attention back to the bigger picture. The social developments that led to massively increased numbers of women going into the American workplace in the 1970’s have clearly helped with American productivity, but most organizations are still missing far too many contributions of women due to inattention to sexual harassment. We believe that much more work needs to be done to quantify the collective losses caused by sexual harassment because once the staggering scope of those losses is better understood, that understanding will generate broader consensus that change is needed. That understanding will also facilitate more research and funding to identify other nonobvious factors that may be preventing women from reaching their fullest potential. With greater collaboration between grassroots movements and academic institutions, it will become clear that the #MeToo movement is essential not only for victim justice but also for collective welfare.