This post was written by our treasurer, Beth Anderson, and originally published online in the Savage Pacer.
We find ourselves in an unprecedented time of truth-telling. Women from all walks of life are telling their #MeToo stories of sexual harassment in the work place — and they are being believed, and there have been consequences for perpetrators. These last two points are a new thing. Women have always told their stories to each other, and all of us have known about the perpetrators within our circle of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. But there have rarely been consequences for the perpetrators. They keep their jobs, get promoted and/or get elected to office, while the victims are often disbelieved, denigrated, or blamed for the harassment. Despite our horror at the treatment of women on a personal level, at a societal level we have been willing to look the other way. It appears that this may no longer be the case.
While sexual harassment has been illegal for some time (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), charges brought in a court of law have been difficult to prove. Cases are thrown out of court because the harassment wasn’t severe enough, or it wasn’t often enough, or it only occurred for a limited period of time. Meanwhile victims are sent back to these harassing work environments, while perpetrators get the green light to continue a behavior that is tacitly condoned by the rest of the organization and the courts. It is no wonder women have been reluctant to speak out in a public forum. The backlash is great and the problem isn’t solved.
Recently however, some women are being believed, and some perpetrators are being fired. Public opinion toward sexual harassment is starting to shift. We can attribute this to an awakening awareness of the pervasive nature of sexual harassment in the workplace. Not only does almost every woman have her own Me Too story, but we are beginning to realize it’s not just us. We find out it’s not just the woman on the factory floor who submits to her supervisor rubbing against her while she’s working the line because she can’t afford to lose her job. It’s also the highly paid, very visible Meghan Kelly at Fox News who is asked for sexual favors to secure her place at the network. It’s not just the lobbyist trying to do business at the Minnesota State Capitol who is constantly pressured for “dates” by a legislator, but it’s movie stars like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow who are propositioned for sex by the man who controls the studio. Over and over again we are hearing the same stories. Men in powerful positions forcing sexual contact with subordinates in exchange for career advancement, or even just keeping their job.
When we witness sexual harassment in the workplace, we should be horrified, we should confront perpetrators, and we should enforce workplace policies. There must be support for victims and consequences for perpetrators. In recent weeks, we have seen just this kind of action. Workplaces, organizations, and businesses are moving ahead of the courts and policing themselves when it comes to workplace conduct. This is a good sign.
But it also can be unsettling to find so many trusted and respected individuals being charged with sexual harassment and having investigations find the allegations credible. Credible enough to warrant immediate firing. It brings the issue home, it makes it personal, each of us confronted with our own biases. Are we really willing to believe the women if it means the loss of a trusted news source, or an effective legislator, or beloved entertainer?
My answer is yes. And here’s what makes it less painful for me. Moving forward, there is hope and opportunity. There is hope that the top performers in all walks of life will no longer be entitled to force unwanted sexual contact on subordinates and colleagues. There is hope that workers will be judged not only on the merits of what they produce, but on the merits of how they work together. There is opportunity for those traditionally denied a seat at the corporate or government table to move into those positions. And there is opportunity for all of us to reach the heights of our careers based on hard work, education, training, experience, and talent.
This moment in time could be a turning point if we follow these few rules. Sexual harassment is never okay. No employee is so important that they should be allowed to bully or harass a coworker or colleague. Support the victims. Punish the perpetrators. And where possible, open the doors of opportunity to people traditionally denied access. You will be rewarded with an effective workforce and a prosperous business.