In the traditional workplace, when a colleague makes an unwanted advance or unsolicited sexual comment, there's typically a protocol: You report the incident as sexual harassment to your Human Resources department, and look to them to help to ameliorate the situation. But as the freelance economy—already a workforce of 53 million people in the US alone—continues to grow, more freelance employees face incidents of sexual harassment involving colleagues or supervisors while working remotely, usually via email, text message, social media, or workplace chats. And in remote workplaces, the sexual harassment protocol isn't always so clear.
A 2011 study found that 38 percent of women have experienced some form of workplace sexual harassment, a percentage that may not be surprising to those following more public allegations of workplace harassment in recent months, from national media outlets to reality TV to the Supreme Court.
Reporting harassment and sexist behavior as a remote freelance employee is challenging in many of the same ways that it is for employees in brick-and-mortar workspaces. In both traditional and remote workplaces, victims often struggle with the fear of repercussions for speaking out or disbelief. Especially for transgender employees, there's a very real risk of being fired for reporting harassment.
However, unlike many employees who work with their businesses in person, freelancers don't necessarily have access to corporate resources such as HR, which can make harassment feel like an even more isolating or hopeless experience.
Alice* was freelance writing for an up-and-coming podcast network on a loose agreement as a remote employee in 2014. She tells Broadly that everything was going fine at first, but then a host of a long-running podcast at the same company crossed the line with her on Twitter. Alice had responded to one of the podcast host's tweets about sports, which he quickly escalated to sexual innuendo. Alice replied with a heavy-handed joke in an attempt to point out how inappropriate the conversation had turned, but the host continued to make sexual advances.
Alice says that over the next few months, the host sent sexually inappropriate direct messages to her via Twitter. "He was never as forward as he was the night that [the harassment started]," she says, "but it was clear to me that he was using my interest in the show as a way to foster some sort of private closeness between us, which, given what he had said, made me uncomfortable."
On my twenty-second birthday, he messaged me out of the blue about how he wanted to push me up against a wall and fuck me.
She says she stayed silent about what had happened—apart from consulting with her husband—for fear of losing her job. "I was absolutely afraid that if I tried to do something in response to [the harassment] that my show would be dropped from the network, effectively killing off most of our listenership," she says. "I was also afraid of being alienated by the owner."
Of course, harassment over social media is far from uncommon, but when it's a co-worker doing the trolling, it can be even more difficult to report and block.
Natalie, a freelance writer, says she was also harassed via sexually inappropriate direct messages by a senior writer at her first writing gig. "For weeks, I subtly tried getting him to realize how weird and gross this was without having him get mad and jeopardize my work at the company," she says. "I'd say things like, 'Does your wife know you're sending these? You can say whatever you want but only if your wife explicitly knows you're doing this.' He'd always ignore [that] and change the subject. On my twenty-second birthday, he messaged me out of the blue about how he wanted to push me up against a wall and fuck me. That was when I reached my limit."
Natalie had never been informed that she had any access to HR, and it wasn't until she finally broke down and told her editor about what had been happening that she found out that she did (although this isn't always the case for freelance employees). Natalie says her editor was "horrified and sympathetic," and immediately told the editor-in-chief about the senior writer's harassment. To her knowledge, the publication did nothing to reprimand the him, though he ceased his harassment after Natalie came forward.
Natalie says that the harassment left her feeling "minimized" and made her question her career path. "I looked at this gig as affirmation that I was on the right track and could make it as a writer, and as soon as that first DM came in, I immediately felt objectified and disrespected."
As soon as that first DM came in, I immediately felt objectified and disrespected.
While Natalie isn't alone in her experience, statistics on just how many remote freelancers face sexual harassment aren't currently available. Charles Krugel, a Chicago-based HR counselor and management-side labor and employment lawyer, tells Broadly that both transparency and revenue issues make it virtually impossible to collect accurate statistics on this issue, but he does see sexual harassment for freelancers as a serious issue. "It's not the norm, but it's definitely present and identifiable," he says.
For freelancers who want to pursue action against their client, there are still further challenges to face. According to Krugel, "many sexual harassment statutes require there to be an adverse or tangible employment action, or threatened employment action. These types of actions aren't readily apparent in online harassment situations. A freelancer may have to show that pay or other benefits were withheld as a result of the alleged harassment."
Technically, under civil rights and tort laws, online workplace harassment is essentially the same as in-person harassment, Krugel says. "For all practical purposes, online harassment isn't really that different from in-person or verbal harassment," he says. "You have the same power disparities at play here. Someone is harassing another person by using sex as a weapon or means to control the other person." He says that the challenge for freelancers, though, is demonstrating that a "traditional employer-employee relationship" exists, which means that "the hierarchy of power may not be easily determined or apparent."
Krugel emphasizes how important it is to keep a record of the harassment as it occurs, and recommends that that freelancers first attempt to bring the harassment to the attention of the client. Harassers are "usually not looking for a fight," Krugel says. "They're usually looking for a passive victim. If the harassing behavior becomes unbearable or too obnoxious, then [go] to a third party, such as a regulatory agency [EEOC or equivalent] or to an attorney. But in most instances, give your [client] the chance to remedy the situation first."
Sexual harassment, whether it takes place in person or online, is harmful.
Noreen Farrell, executive director of the women's rights organization Equal Rights Advocates, tells Broadly that all sexual harassment is dangerous and especially difficult for freelancers to navigate. "Sexual harassment, whether it takes place in person or online, is harmful," Farrell says. "While the law protects most employees from sexual harassment at work and includes harassment that may take place online, independent contractors and freelancers are not often helped by workplace anti-discrimination laws."
Because federal protections don't always adequately address the realities freelancers face when experiencing sexual harassment, more action is needed at the state-level as well. Currently, New York is working to pass legislation that would address gaps in protections for freelancers.
New York City Councilmember Brad Lander is currently working on passing non-discrimination legislation that would protect freelancers from workplace discrimination in New York City. If the bill passes as it's currently written, "sexual harassment to a freelancer would be treated the same by the law as it would sexual harassment to a full-time employee," a spokesperson told Broadly.
On Thursday, New York City passed the landmark Freelance Isn't Free Act to protect gig economy employees from wage theft. Also introduced by Lander, this bill demonstrates that progress is being made on freelancer rights in at least one major city.
Despite the lack of statistics and visibility, remote workplace sexual harassment of freelancers is a real problem that will only become more important as the freelance economy continues to grow. While legislators work to protect freelancers, those who work from their living rooms, coffee shops, libraries, and remote offices across the country can know that they are not alone, and while they are somewhat limited for now, there are resources on their side.