Feature Article

A New Movement Whose Time Has Come

By Michelle Choate and Mary Tamer

ONE COULD ARGUE IT WAS A SOCIAL MOVEMENT THAT WAS LONG OVERDUE. WITH ONE IN FOUR WOMEN IMPACTED BY WORKPLACE SEXUAL HARASSMENT, WHAT MIGHT IT TAKE FOR THIS NOT-SO-SECRET REALITY TO COME OUT OF HIDING?

A New Movement Whose Time Has Come: SilhouettesIn 2006, civil rights activist Tarana Burke coined the phrase "Me Too" to raise awareness of survivors of sexual harassment and abuse, but the movement did not fully ignite until October 2017, when a handful of Hollywood celebrities, a hashtag, and a social media platform opened a national dialogue. #MeToo soon swept across the nation and the world, exposing the underbelly of power and privilege and leading to revelations, resignations, and, for many, a resolve to better identify and remedy inappropriate and illegal behavior.

Still, while the stunning statistics and the influence of #MeToo have served to solidify a movement focused on substantive change, finding a simple definition of what constitutes sexual harassment, and what doesn't, can be less concrete.

"Sexual harassment is not easily defined," said Jennifer OKeeffe, Lasell's director of legal affairs and Title IX coordinator. "It's important to recognize when people feel uncomfortable." With any personal interactions, there can be issues of perspective, interpretation, and sensitivity. "It's tough because you don't know where people are coming from," said OKeeffe. "To some people, a hug is extremely intrusive and harassing. Does that mean it's harassment under the law? Not necessarily, but it warrants a conversation."

For Karin Raye, an assistant professor of justice studies who oversees Lasell's sexual and domestic violence education programs, the nuances of a particular interaction often mirror the long-time imbalance and inequity that has existed between men and women.

"It's all about power and control, and that's what sexual harassment is," said Raye, "a show of power and control being acted out in the workplace."

In the wake of #MeToo, and its related movement, Time's Up - which shifts the focus to action-based remedies and a multimillion dollar defense fund - what kinds of changes are in store for workplace interactions, and how might individuals ensure they walk the line of appropriate behavior?

From college campuses to corporations to government, the next steps of these movements are crucial to not only prevent the widespread behaviors of the past, but to move toward broader, sustainable change, both inside and outside the workplace.

EVERY GENDER, EVERY AGE, EVERY SECTOR

By definition, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that sexual harassment is identified by "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature," when the conduct "explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment," leaving both female and male victims in its wake.

In 2016, the EEOC published a substantial report on sexual harassment in the workplace, noting the significance of ongoing, widespread incidences-along with  widespread underreporting-despite 30 years of federal protections provided under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"We present this report with a firm, and confirmed, belief that too many people in too many workplaces find themselves in unacceptably harassing situations when they are simply trying to do their jobs," wrote report co-chairs Chai Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic. "Some of what we learned surprised us; everything we learned illuminated our understanding of this complex human issue."

As OKeeffe and Raye explained, sexual harassment is indeed a complex issue with multiple layers and myriad victims of all genders, age groups, backgrounds, and job titles. As the EEOC report outlines, different groups and genders are impacted at varying levels-with women between the ages of 16 and 34 being disproportionately affected, as are those in service-based jobs-but the high incidence of underreporting makes clear figures difficult to determine.

As the EEOC report cited, "anywhere from 25 percent to 85 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace," while in 2016, men  constituted only 16.6 percent of the claims. In other words, harassment is pervasive.

"There are many barriers to reporting," said OKeeffe. "Women are usually aware that something is wrong with the way they've been treated, but they've been  conditioned by society to disregard their feelings. There is also a big fear of retaliation, be it by an employer or co-workers. No one wants to be singled out or looked at as being ‘too sensitive,' nor do they want to be punished by being demoted or assigned to a bad shift." Sometimes, she said, it simply comes down to the fact that "women don't want to get anyone in trouble."

Many experts agree that breaking the wall of silence will always be the greatest weapon in ending the epidemic of institutional sexual harassment. But, while the concept of speaking up is ostensibly simple, OKeeffe said careful attention must be paid by employers hearing the complaint when it comes to their use of language,
involvement in the conversations, and timing of the communication itself. Knowing that there is someone there to listen on the employer side, she said, is also integral to promote the willingness of an employee to speak up.

"Creating a better work environment for all should be the goal of every employer," said Raye. "Employers should be encouraged to create environments that are not hostile and where impacted employees can come forward. It is a lot to ask survivors to report when they have seen others fired or demoted for doing so. The onus should be on the employers to take steps to change their culture."

A HISTORY OF HARASSMENT

According to Raye, the problems being brought forward can be traced back to centuries of gender bias, inequality, and marginalization, coupled with deeply ingrained cultural beliefs about the differing roles and capabilities of men and women. In addition, Raye believes that the arrival of women into the traditionally male workplace created a modern threat to masculinity that is often at the root of sexual harassment on the job.

"Women are sexually harassed by men they work with in an effort to devalue women and ‘exert power over them,'" said Raye, an attorney who spends significant time leading workplace and athletic team-based training sessions on both sexual harassment and sexual assault. "Those in power seek to erode a woman's confidence and power by sexualizing her and making her feel more vulnerable. Sexual harassment is not about sex and attraction; it's much more about threats to power structures."

Raye added that while most think about sexual harassment as being perpetrated by men against women, it is important to "recognize that disparate power dynamics with respect to age, culture, race, sexuality, class, education, and lived experiences can also result in harassment, leaving many marginalized communities, regardless of gender, vulnerable in their places of employment." 

Both Raye and OKeeffe believe that prior to the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment - be it a threat in the workplace or a cat call on the street - had become tolerated as a "social norm." For the most part, women endured because they either couldn't see a way to protect themselves from it or feared retribution, even
job loss, if they stepped forward. Without a clear and safe path toward resolution and remedy, impacted individuals often felt enormous pressure to stay silent.

But, in the midst of these new movements, many rightly question whether silence will still be the rule versus the exception in the months and years ahead.

"I think one of the huge benefits of what we are seeing is that it's opening up a discussion that wasn't being had before," said OKeeffe.

Raye agreed, noting several tangible steps forward since the #MeToo movement took hold last fall.

"First, the sheer numbers of survivors coming forward helps to erode the shame and blame so commonly associated with harassment, freeing people to safely speak out," said Raye. "Second, the movement also allows people to connect and strengthen their voices through their common experiences - we see an explosion of sexual
harassment dialogue on college campuses, in workplaces, and in the news. Third, the mostly positive community response and community building among survivors combats the isolation and embarrassment that they often feel, empowering people to come forward and hold the harasser accountable."

"Finally," she said, "the movement has increased pressure on corporations who are starting to respond to the potential public shame and financial ramifications by removing perpetrators from their workplaces."

THE PATH TO CHANGE

A New Movement Whose Time Has Come: woman on path

As stories continue to pour forth, both OKeeffe and Raye see the significant opportunity brought about by #MeToo to educate, inform, and retrain all genders in order to move toward lasting cultural change. 

Among the necessary steps, both agree that conversations need to start early - including talking to children at a very young age - to stop gender bias and stereotypes before they begin.

"It's important to train people at every level, from K-12 to college to the workplace," said Raye. "We need to teach respect for one another as a whole. We need to encourage a greater empathy and understanding among all genders, so maybe by the time people get to college or work, they are more aware of and sensitive to these issues."

To promote the change of organizational culture, the establishment of iron-clad policies regarding sexual harassment, misconduct, and reporting - and ensuring their proper dissemination via regular training - is another significant and important step forward. So too is the assurance of consequences when policies are not followed, with equal application regardless of who the employee is, or how high they are on the organizational chart. There should be no fear, for example, that a college's star player or a company's C-suite executive will be exempt from repercussions if charges are brought against them.

At the individual level, having an honest conversation with a co-worker who makes others feel uneasy can be an effective tool - assuming the impacted individuals feel safe in making the approach.

"Most people want to know if they are making someone uncomfortable, regardless of what the reason is," said OKeeffe. "And if a person has been told but keeps repeating the behavior, it's hard to defend that behavior." Most importantly, she said, "If something feels uncomfortable, don't try to talk yourself out of it; talk to someone."

Both OKeeffe and Raye see ongoing, open dialogue as the best path forward, with all genders utilized as allies in the fight against harassment.

"Karin and I like to focus on how important all genders are to fighting these issues," said OKeeffe. "In particular, men are important allies and role models for each other. We never want to alienate them, but to encourage them to step up and be part of the fight. We also recognize that male survivors have considerable obstacles to reporting. Engaging and educating men helps to alleviate some of these barriers."

"If we only talk to women, how will we ever have lasting cultural change?" said Raye. "We need to talk to all genders. The crux of the issue is recognizing and then talking about the differential power dynamics that people experience, that have existed for decades. Having that conversation brings significant awareness to both men and women. If they recognize the problems, it can result in changing behavior."

#MeToo

WHAT IS HARASSMENT?
Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to the following:

  • The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man.
  • The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.
  • The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
  • The harasser's conduct must be unwelcome.

BEYOND COMPLIANCE
Lasell's Director of Legal Affairs and Title IX Coordinator, Jennifer OKeeffe, shares the college's methods of proactively engaging campus around issues of harassment and misconduct. Her well-honed tactics include:

SET EXPECTATIONS
OKeeffe starts the conversation around sexual misconduct as soon as students and employees arrive on campus. They learn about Title IX - the federal law stating that no person shall be discriminated against on the basis of gender - as well as college policy and the definitions of sexual violenc eand harassment.

IDENTIFY ALLIES
Title IX compliance requires identification and training of faculty and resident assistants, who are legally compelled to share information of possible violations with OKeeffe. In addition, OKeeffe ha salso trained the police department, student club leaders, and the entire athletics department - and cohort of student athletes - to be responsible bystanders and awareness advocates.

UNDERSTAND COMMUNITY PERCEPTION
Last spring, undergraduate students in Professor Karin Raye's course on sexual violence worked with OKeeffe and the college's institutional research department to create, promote, and analyze a campus climate survey. Survey participants provided their take on what defined certain behaviors, what they had experienced or seen at Lasell relative to misconduct, and where they felt the school was supportive and/or lacking in resources.

EDUCATE BEYONDPAMPHLETS
Title IX requires educational programming on every campus - but this is often fulfilled through webinars, posters, and pamphlets. At Lasell, students can take courses for credit on sexual and domestic violence, participate in informal group discussions about experiences with misconduct, or attend community-wide events aimed at awareness such as Take Back the Night, the White Ribbon Campaign, or the Clothesline Project.

ENCOURAGE PROACTIVITY
In light of the #MeToo movement, OKeeffe, Raye, students, and administrators will undertake a number of new initiatives. These include working group discussions to address current campus concerns, student-led campaigns to amplify voices of survivors, and the creation of several films to promote community education.

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