Interim CEO, Women Employed
This article was originally published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. See it on their website under Partner Commentary.
It’s been almost a year since the current national conversation about sexual harassment and assault first kicked off with a wave of complaints against movie producer Harvey Weinstein. What started as a reckoning in Hollywood has eventually stretched to encompass workplaces in every industry — from government to food service. In the months since #MeToo went viral, thousands of women and men have risen up and spoken out about their experiences with sexual violence. The sheer mass of the disclosures has helped to further understanding of the pervasiveness of the problem and of the different ways sexual harassment can take place.
This continuing dialogue has also empowered and enlarged the community of advocates, of which Women Employed is a part, who have been working for years to shine a light on the wide-spread impact of sexual harassment — especially for women whose low-paid jobs make them especially vulnerable. The movement, begun in 2006 by Tarana Burke, has certainly shifted the public discourse about what has long been taking place, often with impunity, in our workplaces and beyond. What remains to be seen, however, is how our institutional and cultural norms will truly address the issues which have been brought to light.
In a survey conducted by Harvard Business Review this summer, only 16% of the working women and 14% of men agreed that their workplace “has introduced new policies, procedures, or systems that make it easier for people to speak up when they have concerns.” And though the majority of state legislatures across the country indicated they would make changes to their sexual harassment policies at the start of 2018, in a recent follow-up by the Associated Press only half had actually implemented any. It’s clear there’s still room for action to create workplaces and institutions that ensure safety, inclusion and dignity.
Employees have been leading the efforts to make real change, and public and private institutions would do well to not only respond to those employees, but to take a proactive look at their policies, practices and culture to guide actions that ensure their workplaces are built on mutual respect. Thanks to the work of Unite Here, a hospitality union, and other advocates for hotel housekeepers, the American Hotel and Lodging Association just announced that its members — including Wyndham, Marriott and other major chains — will implement measures to address harassment and improve safety. Innovative employers like Homeroom, a mac and cheese restaurant in Oakland, CA, responded to employee complaints by implementing a color-coded alert system to protect staff from abusive customers that has been so effective, the restaurant has reported a virtual elimination of harassing behavior. Necessary resources like the Times Up Legal Defense Fund have also been developed to give legal assistance to those who’ve experienced harassment or related retaliation in the workplace. So, the needle is moving.
There is still ample opportunity to strengthen sexual harassment protections at the state and federal level which, for the most part, only cover employers of a certain size. This leaves domestic workers and farm workers unprotected (80% of female farm workers report being sexually harassed on the job). Employers can also address harassment by implementing the promising practices detailed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace’s 2016 report. Tackling sexual harassment also requires a comprehensive approach to addressing other kinds of workplace discrimination that may accompany it, such as the wage gap between men and women or racial discrimination, as reported by Ford auto plant workers.
Finally, there’s the role we all have in confronting the cultural and organizational norms that make sexual harassment such a widespread occurrence. That’s why Women Employed has developed resources outlining how to recognize sexual harassment when it is happening to you or someone else, how to intervene if necessary, and how to find recourse within your workplace or with enforcement agencies. We have an opportunity — indeed, a mandate — to take action in ensuring that every workplace is safe, inclusive and equitable.
Sharmili Majmudar is Interim CEO at Women Employed, a non-profit organization advocating for economic equity for working women and their families.