Sexual Assault and Lower Pay: Two Tools to Keep Women in Their Place

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by Marilyn Watkins

My first response to the sea of “me toos” on Facebook over the past few days was to wonder how anyone out there could possibly not already know that women and teenage girls are routinely subjected to sexual harassment and sexual assault in our culture. But maybe too many of us have silently accepted it for too long.

We’ve also failed to connect the dots to current policy discussions about issues like reproductive choice, the gender wage gap, and child poverty.

My own experiences include being groped by a male teacher in my high school hallways; men exposing themselves and masturbating in front of me in parks and on buses; whistles and catcalls too frequent to begin to catalog from passing cars and trucks, or when walking past construction sites or other mostly male workplaces – including a Seattle fire station when I was a 40-something mother of teenagers; three male superiors asking me to have sex with them in my first professional job – all of them married and years older than me.

None of this is about romantic attraction. It’s all about asserting power and control. And I’m an upper-middle-class, white, heterosexual woman who has achieved career success. I can only imagine what people endure when they have fewer shields of privilege or have experienced greater levels of direct harm.

With the flood of accusations against Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump’s boastings of assaults on women, the rape culture that persists on college campuses, the actions by state legislatures and Congress to diminish women’s right to control their own bodies, and the open celebrations of White male supremacy, it feels like we’re going backwards, not forward.

Most of the men I’ve known throughout my life as family members, friends, and colleagues are good people who treat women with respect. But that doesn’t lessen the cumulative impact of a pervasive culture that demeans women and normalizes petty insults. My son’s basketball coach who chided his team for “playing like girls” (not meant as a compliment) and the young man who recently mansplained mansplaining to me were surely not intending to perpetuate the subordination of women – but they were.

Women get inured to having their right to occupy certain public spaces challenged, their qualifications questioned, and their ideas ignored – until a man repeats them and then gets all the credit.

All this is directly related to the persistent gender and racial wage gaps. In 2016, the typical woman who worked fulltime in Washington was paid 77 percent of a man’s pay, according to American Community Survey data. A female college graduate made just 62 percent of a male college grad. White women take home only 76 percent of White men’s pay, but are still more highly paid than Black, Latino, or Native American men. Latina and Pacific Islander women have to work two full years to earn what a typical white man takes home in one year.

Wage Gap graph
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey

Part of the wage gap is “explained” by occupational differences. Women make up close to half the workforce, but hold only 20 percent of highly-paid computer-related jobs in the state and only 3 percent of construction jobs. But with the prevalence of assault and harassment, is it any wonder that teenage girls and young women are hesitant to enter male-dominated spaces?

Especially when their competence is so often questioned when they do enter.

A University of Washington study published last year found that male students in science, technology and math classes consistently rated other men with mediocre grades as more knowledgeable and smarter than women with high grades  – and that women were more likely to drop out of STEM courses than men. Another recent study found that two thirds of all women scientists and 77 percent of African American woman scientists reported having to provide more evidence of competence than men. They also reported that being too assertive triggered negative backlashes.

In work places of all types, women are routinely offered lower starting wages, assigned to less prestigious units, and passed over for promotion.

Because of lower pay, women and their families struggle to cover the basics, with women of color facing a double whammy. One in four households in the state headed by a woman without a husband present live in poverty, compared to 5 percent of married-couple families. One third of school-aged kids and 44 percent of preschoolers living with a single mom are in poverty. Senior women are much more likely to be poor than men.

Finally passing the equal pay and opportunity bill that’s been stalled in our state legislature the past three years would begin to address some of the wage gap. It’s also high time to call out the insidious culture of sexual assault and harassment and to stop teaching our boys it’s ok.


Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center focused on building and economy that works for everyone.

featured image “Woman seated, head in hands” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by ronocdh


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One thought on “Sexual Assault and Lower Pay: Two Tools to Keep Women in Their Place”

  1. I think some men would be horrified if the asked the women in their lives, not if it has happened to them, but, “when was the first time?” I was a second grader.

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