On May 9, 2019, NAPAWF Legal Director Jane Liu testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at a hearing examining the issue of sexual harassment in federal government workplaces. Ms. Liu testified about this issue as it impacts Asian American and Pacific Islander women federal workers:

Good afternoon. My name is Jane Liu. I am the Legal Director at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. Thank you for this opportunity to offer my perspective on an issue that deeply impacts many Asian American and Pacific Islander federal workers.

Founded in 1996, NAPAWF is the leading, national, multi-issue AAPI women’s organization in the country. Our mission is to build the collective power of all AAPI women and girls to gain full agency over our lives, our families, and our communities. Our economic justice work focuses on advocating for policies and laws that protect the dignity, rights, and equitable treatment of AAPI women workers. A key issue we work on is workplace sexual harassment.

Since the emergence of #MeToo less than 2 years ago, the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace has gained unprecedented attention. At the same time, the voices and experiences of women of color, who are disproportionately impacted by sexual harassment, have often been excluded from the public conversation. In order to bring about broader, systemic change for all, it is vital that any conversation about sexual harassment center the experiences of women of color workers. My testimony today will focus on the issue of sexual harassment for AAPI women federal workers and potential solutions for the government to implement.

Risk Factors

While data show that sexual harassment is a significant problem in federal workplaces, AAPI women workers are particularly at risk due to a number of factors. First, intersectional stereotypes of AAPI women are pervasive and permeate the workplace. These stereotypes, such as the submissive geisha, the prostitute and the mail-order bride, depict AAPI women as erotic and sensual, foreign and exotic, subservient, quiet, feminine, and passive. These stereotypes are racialized and AAPI women often experience sexual harassment based on these generalizations.

Second, AAPI women workers face power imbalances and racial and gender inequities that increase the risk of harassment. At root, workplace sexual harassment is about power used to reinforce cultural norms and to exert control over people with less power and status in society. As a result, the risk of harassment is greater in work environments with significant power imbalances and inequities. AAPI women federal workers continue to face a glass ceiling at the Senior Executive Service (SES) level, resulting in underrepresentation at the top levels of government. Moreover, a 2012 EEOC report found that AAPI federal employees continue to face pervasive racial and national origin discrimination by managers, and barriers to promotion.

Barriers to Reporting

While the vast majority of individuals who experience harassment never tell their employer about the conduct, AAPI women are even less likely to report due to particular barriers.

Social stigma and the prevalence of victim-blaming attitudes in AAPI communities are significant barriers. These attitudes are shaped in part by traditional Asian cultural beliefs that women are expected to practice modesty and sexual restraint and are held responsible for sexual activities outside of marriage. As a result, many AAPI women do not report because they are concerned about how it would affect their own and their family’s reputation.

Another barrier to reporting is that AAPI women have difficulty or are unwilling to identify conduct that is consistent with sexual harassment as sexual harassment. This may be due to fear of shame and stigma from acknowledging that they have been sexually harassed. It may also be caused by lack of knowledge of what behaviors constitute sexual harassment. Related to this barrier, many AAPI women do not report because they are unfamiliar with the law and how to enforce their rights. AAPI immigrant workers also face language barriers in reporting, as 35% of AAPI’s are limited English proficient.

The Harmful Effects of Sexual Harassment

The harm caused by sexual harassment to workers can be devastating. Sexual harassment has significant economic and professional consequences. Women who experience harassment are much more likely to change jobs, often to lower-paying jobs. Harassment also reduces access to professional development and learning opportunities. The economic consequences can be more severe for women of color because they face greater wage gaps than white, non-Hispanic women. Asian women are paid 87 cents for every dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man, but the wage gaps are much larger for some ethnic subgroups, with Burmese, Samoan, and Hmong women making less than 60 cents to the dollar.

Sexual harassment also has a devastating impact on health and can lead to depression and trauma. AAPI women already have higher rates of depression and report significantly more suicidal ideation. Southeast Asian women with refugee backgrounds are also at greater risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. For women of color, the health effects are compounded by the health effects of racism and discrimination.

While many aspects of the federal sector complaint process need reform to better serve victims of harassment, I will focus my recommendations on addressing some of the particular issues confronted by AAPI women workers.

First, better data leads to better policy. AAPI women are drastically underrepresented in studies about the prevalence, nature and impact of sexual harassment in the federal workforce. Therefore, each agency should adopt practices to collect disaggregated data that tracks sexual harassment complaints in each department. In addition, agencies should incorporate mechanisms to fully understand the breadth of harassment, such as anonymous department-wide surveys or holding focus groups for women of color.

Other steps that the government should take include:

  • education and training of workers and employers on racialized sexual harassment and intersectional stereotypes;
  • making educational and training materials for workers available in other languages spoken by immigrant workers;
  • ensuring access to interpreters and translators throughout the complaint process;
  • training of EEO counselors and managers on cultural competency and trauma-informed care;
  • implementing a variety of reporting mechanisms other than the EEO complaint process, particularly more informal mechanisms that guarantee anonymity for complainants; and
  • implementing culture change strategies in agencies from the top-down that systematize accountability, reduce power imbalances, increase engagement of employees, and root out institutional inequities.

It cannot be emphasized enough that sexual harassment does not occur in a vacuum. For women of color workers, sexual harassment cannot be separated from racism and other discrimination. Therefore, efforts to address sexual harassment cannot be silo-ed from broader efforts to make federal workspaces more inclusive and more equitable.

Thank you.