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Speeches & Media

Standing Up to Workplace Harassment

Individual bravery and collective action set the stage for women’s solidarity

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Spring 2018

In recent months, hundreds of individuals have come forward with courage and candor to share their experiences of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. Aggregated under the banner #MeToo, a social media hashtag designed to draw awareness to the scale of sexual predation, the stories have united and empowered survivors of all ages. Time magazine recognized the #MeToo “silence breakers” on its cover as Person of the Year and declared that the “revolution of refusal” has just begun. We are proud to profile Tomi-Ann Roberts ’78 (Spring 2018, Smith Alumnae Quarterly), an early silence breaker whose research on the sexual objectification of women is making a difference for this movement.

The ongoing struggle against workplace harassment has been strengthened through both individual acts of bravery and collective action. The term “sexual harassment” was coined by Lin Farley, a feminist scholar, in 1975. Until then, this behavior had been so common in the workplace that it did not even have a name. In what many considered a revolutionary act, legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon ’69 pioneered the 1979 legal claim for sexual harassment as discrimination in the workplace, giving women an avenue for recourse under the law. Yet, it has taken us close to 40 years to move from labeling the problem to acknowledging just how pervasive it is and learning to rally public outcry against it. Social media has provided the organizing tool for individuals, enabling them to take their experiences public and gain support and solidarity. The days of excuses like “That’s just Harvey being Harvey” or “Matt being Matt” will no longer be tolerated. A similar social media movement against sexual harassment, promoted by female actors in Hollywood, is #TimesUp.

As a woman who entered college in 1973, I knew the cost of truth telling, as did my friends. It never would have occurred to any of us to report sexual harassment in college, graduate school or as young faculty members because we were confident it would hurt our careers. The culture, even within universities, normalized sexual harassment. Tolerating unwanted advances and comments was the price women had to pay for wanting to better themselves. Complaints to male colleagues and friends were met with excuses: He didn’t mean anything by it. He was paying you a compliment. He’s a good guy. Other times our confidences in male friends led to critique: You’re being ridiculous. Act like one of the guys. Honestly, you’re being overly sensitive.

More than 40 years later, as president of a college founded for women to promote women’s empowerment, I am well aware of the effects of all forms of gender bias and inequity, especially sexual harassment. And I know that for women of color and other marginalized people, bias is compounded and truth telling often exacts a particularly high price. As Gloria Steinem ’56 has taught us, our activism needs to be grounded in intersectionality.

Activism must also be grounded in a complete delineation of the problem we seek to solve. Sexual harassment has prevented women from receiving the support and mentorship of their male colleagues and supervisors and from entering those positions of power themselves.

Sexual harassment has also taken a toll on women’s health and mental health. As NPR reported last December, the #MeToo movement has triggered women who were harassed and assaulted recently as well as bringing out long-buried traumas. I suspect we are only just beginning to grasp the extent and severity of the problem.

Sadly, this is also a problem that has resulted in a tremendous loss of potential. As Caroline Framke has written, stories of sexual harassment have featured individuals, typically women, “who were intimidated, bullied or outright forced into leaving their dreams and ambitions behind while the men responsible moved forward.”

In a New York Times essay in December, Susan Faludi, the Jacobson Visiting Nonfiction Writer in English Language and Literature at Smith, noted that women are divided in their concerns about “due process and proportionality in confronting male harassers.” These issues must also be considered as we think about how to redress sexual harassment.

Clearly, workplaces need to embrace prevention as one strategy. On the first day of work, human resource departments need training tools for sexual harassment prevention and intervention. There are many ways to change the culture around gender-based and sexual harassment: through training, regulation and consequential discipline for violations.

As a developmental psychologist, I would prefer to begin prevention efforts far earlier. Like many social scientists, I have long been concerned about the need to raise children more equitably in their homes and in their schools, and to reject media messages and consumer products and toys that perpetuate sexrole stereotypes beginning at birth.

“The Sexual Harassment Prevention Song,” a wry video by comedy songwriter Lauren Mayer (laurenmayer.com/videos), which you may have seen circulating in social media, offers a direct solution I suspect most Smith alumnae would endorse:

The best antidote
Is to hire and promote
And elect and vote for more women.

You don’t have to look far for fields with room to improve gender parity, especially at the leadership level. Only 25 percent of college presidents, 19 percent of members of Congress, 17 percent of corporate board members, 8 percent of state governors and 6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

As a women’s college, Smith prepares students to be the leaders the world so desperately needs. Smith also has a sacred obligation to maintain an environment that is free of sexual and genderbased harassment. Many colleges once had no prohibitions against romantic or sexual relationships between students and faculty or staff; it is important for us to acknowledge the past and to right past wrongs. We now recognize that no student, regardless of age, can truly give consent to a member of the staff or faculty because of the inherent power imbalance.

This May, some 600 graduating seniors will depart our campus, some setting out to the workplace, others to continue their studies. Each will be taking the first steps in what our mission statement promises: lives of distinction and purpose. I hope that Smith has given them, and the graduates who follow, the foundation to build a world where professional networks and success are based on talent and not gender, enabling all to thrive in a just and equitable workplace.