The Gig Economy Is Especially Susceptible to Sexual Harassment |


Last year, around this time, I spent some
weeks speaking with workers and bosses in what is often called the gig
economy. There was—and there is still—an idea that working
self-determined hours on contract, rather than holding a full-time job,
is the future of American employment. The model interested me because it
had intense support from the progressive Brain Trust, even though its
socioeconomic effects were vexed. I came to realize that, somewhere
along the way, the idea of democratic empowerment had got tangled up
with the notion of self-defined living, and what had once freed people
to drop out and lose a Tuesday with the Grateful Dead, against the
strictures of the Man, was now freeing companies such as Uber to hire
them at variable wages with few guardrails, let alone health care.

As I followed my interview schedule around New York, from coffee shop to
hipper coffee shop and then to various lovely Airbnb-bookable lofts, the
workers I met from the 1099 economy (1099, because the money arrives
piecemeal, rather than through W-2 employment) spoke often about making
do with limited recourse. Full-time employees at companies, after all,
have fallbacks for dire circumstances. Collective bargaining is an
option. Human-resources departments are meant to address discrimination
and harassment—as are federal
laws. Freelancers
exist outside that
sphere. They are
accountable but not accounted for. They can fall victim to the whims,
iniquities, and weird ideas of whoever happens to be paying for their

I thought about the 1099ers again this autumn, as sexual misconduct led
the news. To the extent that comprehensive data about workplace
harassment exist—which they only sort of
given issues with reporting—it has emerged as a problem of mustard-gas
pervasiveness. A
in 2016, by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s
workplace-harassment task force, suggested that a minimum of one-quarter
of women report having experienced workplace harassment, and allowed
that it might be as much as eighty-five per cent. (Two other surveys’
findings fall within that window, respectively fixing the proportion at
forty and
sixty per cent of women. Men report, too, but at lower percentages.) The
varies with different kinds of workplaces, running high in, for example,
service industries and low-wage jobs. That may be partly because
employees in these roles tend to have little job security: they’re
easily replaced.

By that logic, freelance workers are highly vulnerable. They have little
institutional support and few, if any, supervisors. They are transient
and easily replaceable as well. Those who gig with algorithmic ratings
systems must stay on the good side of capricious clients. Others, who
depend on word-of-mouth referrals, are obliged to embrace any gift
horses that come.

Individual horror stories have emerged—at times, there seems a
nearly inexhaustible supply.
But it’s also tricky to find numbers here, due to a dearth of data on
freelancing as a sector. The Bureau of Labor Statistics gathered
information on contingent and alternative-employment workers from 1995
to 2005 (before the explosion of gigging apps), and then stopped. Tom
Perez, the last Obama-era Secretary of Labor, refunded that survey, and new data were
collected last May. So far, though, they’ve gone unreleased. In the
absence of basic information, comprehensive sexual-harassment statistics
among freelancers seem a lot to hope for—even as they’re urgently

Slowly, and in drips, though, data are trickling in. This afternoon,
HoneyBook, a platform for freelance events-industry
workers—photographers, caterers, stationery designers, and so
results from a sexual-harassment survey it ran, in December, among users. The
sample is limited, and hardly random. (The company sent a survey
invitation to thirty-eight thousand of its users; a thousand and
eighty-seven participated anonymously, and ninety-seven per cent were
women.) But it’s not nothing, and the data start to light a candle in a
room that has been dark.

The harassment numbers in the HoneyBook report are—one wishes this were
a shock—high. Fifty-four per cent of the freelancer respondents reported
being sexually harassed in the course of their work. Of those,
seventy-seven per cent cited “unprofessional comments” about their
appearance, three-quarters were called “demeaning nicknames” on the
job, and a horrifying sixty per cent reported physical intimidation.
Eighty-seven per cent never brought these incidents to anyone’s
attention, even though eighteen per cent say they were harassed by the
same person more than four times. (More than eighty per cent, in fact,
continued working on whatever the harassment-filled project had been.)
Those who did lodge complaints found their claims ignored more than half
of the time.

Taken as a glimpse of a much larger picture, these numbers are alarming
not only for the widespread problem they suggest but as an indication of
how far outside a basic accountability structure the supposed future of
work stands. HoneyBook recommends that freelancers add anti-harassment
clauses into their contracts. (A majority of their survey participants
included no language.) Other advisers
suggest keeping thorough records of encounters and pursuing legal action if
reporting doesn’t yield results. The counsel, though sound, only
underscores an imbalance: in freelance projects, even more than in the
normal workplace, the burden of time, effort, risk, and even method for
resolving harassment rests on its victims. The costs of freelancing are,
in more than the literal sense, the costs of self-support.

In my magazine piece about the gig economy,
I traced the long path of progressivism from a systems-building
philosophy, a century ago, to what I called a “politics of the particular”: an ideal of customized life styles, self-expressive
endeavor, and distrust of large systems. (Progressivism is not the only
belief system to have curved in this direction.) That route is freeing,
in many ways, but riskier and lonely, too. Support has not increased to
cover opportunity. Some stresses of the workplace, rather than melting,
have grown. Tracking them—not just in individual accounts but
systemically, through the working world—is crucial: we can’t fix what we
don’t see, and we can’t protect what we do not see whole. A wide survey
isn’t as heroic as a woman of uncommon courage, but heroism shouldn’t be
a standard of protection. Freelancers do enough to keep their candles
burning. It’s time for companies like HoneyBook to light the room by
gathering—and publishing—harassment information on their own.


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