The #MeToo movement is finally making its mark on the local and state levels, forcing policy changes that will give people new ways to combat an old problem.
Sexual harassment? Not a problem here, the human-resources representative told King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles.
Of the county’s 15,000 employees, the rep said, only a handful had reported being sexually harassed or discriminated against.
“That set off alarm bells,” Kohl-Welles remembered of the meeting two years ago. “A few cases a year? That doesn’t make sense. It was clear there was no way they were truly tracking this.”
Last fall, the #MeToo movement proved her right. Women of all ages and stripes were emboldened to talk about what they have endured in their work and private lives.
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It was a sexual reckoning, especially when you consider that in 2016, a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) task force found that three out of four people who are harassed or discriminated against never report it to their supervisors.
It all made Kohl-Welles curious about how the county deals with harassment. It’s an area where she has spent most of her career. As a U.S. Department of Education specialist, she ensured that school districts were following the requirements of Title IX and served as an expert witness in harassment lawsuits against school districts. For more than 20 years, she taught classes on gender and education at the University of Washington. As a state senator in Olympia, she heard stories from colleagues and constituents.
Now as a Metropolitan council member, she found the current policy regarding sexual harassment and discrimination to be “cumbersome and dense.”
“It does not invite people to engage with it,” Kohl-Welles said. “It’s intimidating. If you have to go through this, you’re not going to report anything.”
Secondly, there are only two options: File a formal complaint — or do nothing.
“There is no informal process where people can see their options” and decide whether to file a complaint or take lesser action, she said, like reporting the harassment to a supervisor — and in confidence.
So Kohl-Welles drafted a new sexual-harassment policy that she will present to a King County Council committee this week.
The new policy will include clear definitions of discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct, and highlight issues like power dynamics and building a healthy workplace culture.
It will also provide multiple options for reporting various levels of harassment. Employees can also use a more informal mechanism, like the county’s employee-assistance program, which allows them to make inquiries and resolve issues in a more low-key way.
The new policy also calls for improved training — more than the 15-minute nondiscrimination training Kohl-Welles got when she first arrived at the county.
“We want to change the culture and we can’t give lip service,” she said. “We want to make sure this is done well and effectively.”
The #MeToo movement is inspiring action on the local and state levels, forcing policy changes that will give people new ways to combat an old problem, and do it for the ages.
Earlier this month, the Seattle City Council approved an ordinance that will give Seattle residents more time for file discrimination and harassment complaints with the city’s Office of Civil Rights. Previously, residents had 180 days from the time of the incident to file complaints with OCR. Now, they will have 18 months. (Housing complaints get a year.)
And in the last legislative session, state lawmakers banned nondisclosure agreements related to sexual harassment complaints, and prohibited employers from retaliating against employees who disclose workplace sexual harassment or sexual assault.
Kohl-Welles got some pushback when she first proposed changing the county policy. Human resources thought they had a good policy already in place and did well by their people.
“I believe we are a very good employer,” the council member said. “But we need to make sure we are an excellent employer for all our employees.”
Consider: There are certain county departments made up of mostly men. Solid waste, for example. Wastewater management treatment. The jail.
“That’s not bad,” Kohl-Welles said. “But it can leave those departments more vulnerable. I don’t want that to come off as saying all men are bad. But as an employer, we can’t know what every manager is doing.”
There are also high-school and college-aged interns working in the county, which is why Kohl-Welles wants training to address how the power dynamic can play into harassment and discrimination.
There was a knock on Kohl-Welles’ office door during our interview; her next appointment had arrived, and the council member invited them in: Lucy Berliner, the director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress, and Mary Ellen Stone, executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KSARC). Two women who are seeing firsthand the changes the #MeToo movement has wrought, and one woman using her position to make change.
Calls to the KSARC resource line are up 50 percent, Stone said. More child victims are reporting abuse from long ago. Teens are speaking up. Adult rape survivors are taking action.
“The more we can say, ‘You are going to be believed,’ the more people will come forward,” Stone said.
Berliner is encouraged that Kohl-Welles’ new policy gives more than one option for those who feel that something wrong happened, and struggle over what to do.
“A policy that gives one option is not a good fit for someone who might be wondering,” she said. “The message is, ‘Talk to somebody. Don’t let it live inside you and let it corrode your experience as a person.’ There has to be space for the conversations about the ambiguous areas.”
The most encouraging thing is that we are having these conversations at all. I kept returning to the 2016 EEOC report Kohl-Welles included with her proposed policy: Three out of four people who experience harassment and discrimination never said a thing, because there was only one way to do it.
Just two years later, we are listening, learning and making change.