Open conversations about sexual harassment is one positive outcome of the presidential election.
One positive outcome of the ugly election season has been the opening of the conversational floodgates on the issue of sexual harassment.
Ever since President-elect Donald Trump was exposed as a trash talker about women, people have been sharing their own experiences with sexual harassment.
When I posted Mona Lee Locke’s column about her ordeals on my Facebook page, I was blown away by the response online and in person from so many women in my social circle.
From my boss to myself to my daughter, we all had stories to tell. It was as if women felt they finally had a reason — and the freedom — to share after keeping these incidents to themselves, for years in some cases.
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Mary Ellen Stone, executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, was not surprised by the response to revelations about Trump. Although sometimes it feels like nothing has changed since I was a college journalist receiving an unwanted kiss from a university administrator, Stone says two things have changed in the past few decades. The female population’s willingness to report sexual assault and harassment and the younger generation’s expectation that something will actually happen when they report it.
She’s hopeful this new attention to sexual assault and sexual harassment might bring changes to the way businesses and the law handle these problems.
My friend, Glennie Blackshire, recently told me about the time her student newspaper adviser told her to go into the bathroom and do something sexual to herself in response to a request for assistance. She was so embarrassed and shocked she didn’t speak up for more than 30 years. Glennie said she thought, at the time, that no one would believe her or take action, so she just let it go. She’s been carrying that memory around with her ever since.
I wonder if my adult daughter will carry the inappropriate comments from supervisors about her body in her head for the rest of her career. Maybe she and Glennie’s teen daughters, who told her sexual assault isn’t such a big deal because it happens to everyone, can hope for a different future.
Stone sees the recent openness about sexual harassment and assault as a positive sign for their generation, despite our uneasiness with their experiences.
“The lid is off,” she told me recently. “It’s extraordinary how many people are coming forward now.”
Sharing is a good place to start. The next steps may be more difficult. Does workplace training need a refresh? How can the rules and laws concerning sexual harassment be more carefully monitored? Are the lines too gray to be clear? How do we empower people to speak up and encourage others to change their behavior?
Edward Yost of the Society for Human Resource Management thinks education will be key to making progress in the workplace.
Yost said too much of the responsibility today is placed on the workers, who don’t want to come forward with complaints that — at a minimum — may make their relationship with colleagues more difficult and worse, could cost them a job.
Employers and supervisors have a responsibility to be proactive, explain where the lines are and encourage people to speak up.
“You’re not born with that knowledge,” Yost said. “That’s a training issue.”
He looks back at the beginning of his own work life with chagrin. He worked in retail and doesn’t remember getting any training around sexual harassment. As a human-resources professional, he’s horrified by the jokes and other conversations he and his fellow young adults in the store used to have.
Yost has seen several improvements over the years: more women in leadership roles, more men speaking up and the fact that locker room talk isn’t acceptable even in most locker rooms any more.
Companies that don’t train their employees are not just irresponsible. They also open themselves up to lawsuits and a lot of wasted time dealing with sexual-harassment complaints.
Yost notes that the now notorious tape of President-elect Donald Trump discussing his uninvited overtures to women would be a human-resources nightmare, because it contains no gray area whatsoever. “Kissing somebody or grabbing somebody. That’s an automatic problem.”
It’s time for sexual harassment to be an automatic problem as well.