Carol Tracy remembers the time, about 40 years ago, when her sister was working as a receptionist at an institution with a large, open atrium.
She dropped a piece of mail. As she bent to retrieve it, Tracy said, a “very distinguished male scientist” grabbed her backside.
Tracy’s sister instinctively whirled around and slapped him. The sound reverberated through the open space.
And from a mezzanine came another sound: a male colleague’s applause.
“He knew, this man was a lech and he didn’t think twice about touching a woman,” recalled Tracy, executive director of Women’s Law Project, a Pennsylvania-based public interest legal center devoted to protecting and expanding the rights of women, girls and LGBTQ people.
Tracy, who is 74 years old and has been in the workforce since she was 18, joked that some colleagues have called her “Alice in Wonderland,” because her experiences with sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace have been few, and even those were relatively benign.
But she knows she’s been fortunate — that many other women have experienced far worse, from verbal harassment to threats, even sexual assaults and rape.
Tolerance of egregious behavior in the workplace, experts say, is decreasing as awareness of it grows, as more women feel empowered to come forward, and as more companies develop policies and procedures to both prevent sexual harassment and to address it effectively when it does occur.
High-profile stories of alleged harassment like the accusations against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have fueled more discussions of what is and what isn’t appropriate, in the workplace and elsewhere.
By the numbers
According to a 2017 poll by Ipsos in cooperation with NPR conducted in the immediate wake of the #MeToo movement, there is a certain amount of resignation about sexual harassment on the part of American workers, but they still want companies to ensure it does not happen.
“Across a broad spectrum, Americans proved to be somewhat resigned to commonplace sexual harassment, yet strongly believe in the need for societal change,” the report said. “Nearly half of Americans (44%) think it is inevitable that men will ‘hit on’ women at work, and a clear majority (86%) also believe that a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment is essential to bringing about change in our society.”
In 2018, Pew Research Center found that Americans think the biggest obstacles to eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace are men who escape consequences for their behavior and female accusers who are not believed.
Pew also found significant gaps between Democrats’ and Republicans’ perceptions of sexual harassment, with 64 percent of Republicans and 42 percent of Democrats believing that increased focus on sexual harassment and assault has made it harder for men to know how to interact with women in the workplace.
But Pew also found an even more pronounced gap among generations: About 66 percent of Americans 65 and older say heightened awareness of sexual harassment has made workplace interactions harder for men, while those percentages drop to 52 percent for ages 50 to 64, 47 percent for ages 30 to 49, and 42 percent for those younger than 30.
Tracy said one of her first jobs carried an implicit discrimination right in its title: She was hired as a “Gal Friday,” and she remembers a time when help wanted ads in newspapers were segregated by gender.
She recalls one instance when, working as a secretary in a military setting, she was asked to assist as tailors measured her as they created uniforms for women serving in Vietnam. The tailors, she said, were careful to measure properly and appropriately, but men in the room shouted out bust measurements at her.
“I was a skinny little thing,” she recalled. “And I was embarrassed, but not humiliated. And this was done in the open, not behind closed doors as a lot of harassment is, away from other people. But my supervisor, who was a former nun, was furious that they’d done that to me.”
CarlLa Horton, executive director of Hope’s Door, which offers assistance and crisis support for domestic violence victims in Westchester County, New York, described herself as a “born-in-the-womb feminist,” and said she experienced harassment on her second job out of college, in 1972.
A male supervisor, she remembered, expected to have a sexual relationship with women on the staff, and when she was approached, she responded with, “No, thank you.”
But, she said, not every woman did, and she now realizes not every women felt she had a choice — or that “choice” meant either to relent, or to be fired, passed up for promotions or raises, or marginalized.
The relationship another woman had with him, she said, “would have been defined as ‘consensual’ at the time, but we didn’t know what that really was … In the years to come, we all look back with different eyes at those interactions.”
‘Be women first’
“Women are evolving to a place where they will talk about it,” said Erika Broadwater, a human resources professional in Bear, Delaware.
“It was a hidden secret that women felt ashamed to talk about,” she said. “They were embarrassed and wondered, would anyone believe me?'”
Broadwater, 51, who is president of the National Association of African Americans in Human Resources, said that she’s seen “a different mindset” between men and women in training sessions.
As an HR professional, she approaches sexual harassment from a position of empathy first: “We have to take off our HR hat and be women first,” she said. “We have to be empathetic and not judgmental.”
In teaching men about appropriate workplace behavior, she borrows from Franklin Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, particularly No. 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
“I tell them, consider first if this were your daughter, because every man’s daughter is his princess,” she said.
Kristen Swift, 39, practices law in Delaware and often represents employers in civil litigation. She believes most employers recognize that attitudes have changed, and they want employees to feel as though they can come forward if they are concerned, or feel targeted.
“I think they’re always trying to do the right thing, whether that’s morally the right thing or legally the right thing,” said Swift. “Most companies try to build a culture that embraces the morally, ethically and legally right thing.”
In 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that 72 percent of HR managers are women. The same report found that 73 percent of HR workers and 96 percent of human resources assistants (except those in payroll and timekeeping) are women.
“The majority of HR professionals are female, so they may be in a better position to relate to women who’ve experienced harassment and to do something about it,” said Swift, who added, “I hope their personal beliefs wouldn’t color their actions,” and that HR professionals treat each allegation fairly and objectively, following company and legal procedures to address it.
Hill-Thomas and #MeToo were turning points
The 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — hearings that included allegations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, a lawyer who’d worked as an aide to Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — were a turning point in the societal, legal and professional attitudes toward sexual harassment.
“Anita Hill and #MeToo both represented a significant cultural shift,” said Tracy. “A greater recognition of the conditions a lot of women work under.”
Stacy Hawkins, 48, is a professor at Rutgers University-Camden Law School. She recalled during the Hill-Thomas hearings before the U.S. Senate “a collective national gasp that it happened,” but added, “so many women could relate to it.”
It also marked a turning point in what the law and many professionals recognized as problematic behavior.
Previously, the risk of not being believed — or worse, of being painted as a gold digger, an attention seeker, or promiscuous — meant many women were “chilled in their reactions to it. There’s this phenomenon where, if you can marginalize or isolate someone, attack their reputation, you can say it’s an isolated incident. Women were discouraged from coming forward because it came at too high a cost, professionally and personally.”
The #MeToo movement was another watershed moment, because unlike Hill, Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones and other women who’d come forward in the past, the accusers of men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Charlie Rose, Les Moonves and, now, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo are not alone.
“It’s this moment of reckoning, where women are saying this is still happening and we want something done about it,” said Hawkins. “When other women come alongside (accusers), it really empowers them and encourages more women to come forward.”
“Women are fed up with this ongoing sense of entitlement from the men who think they can get away with this,” said Broadwater. “There was a time when women were very afraid, and there was a time when if you asked Erika back in the day, I might have said no, I don’t want to jeopardize my career. It’s a personal decision for a lot of women and they’ll ask themselves, am I in the right place mentally and professionally to do this?”
“If I were to talk to Erika at 20, 25, 30, I would say to understand the signs, know your personal boundaries, realize when personal gets too personal,” said Broadwater.
Tracy said that while there’s been “an extraordinary evolution in the rights of working women,” workplaces are still in many instances segregated by gender, and #MeToo, like the women’s liberation movement before it, reflected a movement by privileged women to assert their rights.
“There are still a significant number of women who are still subjected to demeaning and harassing behavior,” she said.
“I think there was a class of women who were so (eager) to get into the workplace and to have jobs where they could use their brains, they were willing to tolerate more.”
‘A continuum’ of behavior and consequences
Tracy noted there are different kinds of harassment, and that should be considered when it comes to consequences.
“There’s a continuum of behavior, from something minor that can be addressed by a supervisor doing something corrective with the offender, and it goes all the way to rape and sexual assault, and then it should go to the judicial system,” she said.
“So, there should be a continuum of remedies. What’s on the table? … Is every sexual harassment case (worth) the civil equivalent of a death penalty? Is the answer always a firing? How do you punish an elected official? There are plenty in Pennsylvania who’ve been accused of crimes, and they keep getting reelected.”
Tracy worked at the University of Pennsylvania before leading Women’s Law Project, and she said what she saw was not a pervasive culture, but rather serial offenders who’d harassed multiple women.
“I dealt with between about 60 to 70 cases of sexual harassment, both in the workplace and among students, and it involved about seven men,” she noted. “That’s when I learned that most sexual harassment comes from serial predators. It’s true in the context of crime and it’s true in a civil context. The reality is that most men are not predators.”
Broadwater is the mother of a 23-year-old son and a 21-year-old daughter, and she said she talks to them both about what they might encounter. “I tell my son, a giggle and a ‘No’ is still a ‘No.’ And I tell my daughter to stand up for herself, to be firm: Thank you but no, thank you.”
Tracy has simple advice for men who wonder what behavior might be out of bounds.
“Wake up,” she said. “We’re no longer ‘back in the day.’ It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out, and I think the general rule of keep your hands to yourself is a good one to follow.”
Women, she said, should also be clear with men: “My mother would say, Just nip it in the bud, Address it quickly; it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Just say, ‘This makes me uncomfortable.'”
Horton said that training — mandatory in many states and corporate settings — means it shouldn’t be hard to discern what is OK and what isn’t.
For men who question what they see as changing standards, she said, “Oh, it was fine for you to hit on women who were 30 years younger? It was fine for you to do that to women while you were in a position of power over them?”
The cliché of the clueless older man “is a nice fallback position but it’s been bogus for a pretty long time,” she added.
“Own your behavior and the consequences that come with it. Ask yourself, would I be doing this with a male colleague?’
And she has a message for women who are subjected to harassment, no matter their age or position.
“There is support. Reach out to the National Organization for Women, find colleagues who can support you, or friends and family, and stay strong. We are inching our way toward equality and we need all the strength and support we can get to get there.”
Phaedra Trethan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered the region since 2015. Now nearing 50, she’s worked since she was 15 years old. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @By_Phaedra, or by phone at 856.486-2417.
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