By Kamrin Baker
In March of 1970, 46 women who worked as researchers, mail girls and more for Newsweek filed a lawsuit against the publication for refusing to hire women writers and editors. They worked with Eleanor Holmes Norton of the ACLU to find their worth—both literally and emotionally—in their fields. I recently learned this story after watching Good Girls Revolt on Amazon (10/10, would recommend), and I was shocked to learn that, while this battle was vital to the advancement of women in media and women in the workplace, it was only one instance of activism in regards to this issue.
In fact, it was only one instance of the same fight we are still fighting.
Many of the issues we face in the feminist movement—and as laborers in American society—were prominent in this lawsuit and remain prominent in how we describe the causes of workplace harassment. These female researchers, who would do all the reporting and a good amount of writing for their male counterparts, learned that they made three times less than them. They not once received a byline, and they were often physically harassed on the job. Their #MeToo movement is the same as ours: taxing, ongoing, necessary and hopefully, an agent for change.
It’s easy to say that workplace harassment only happens when a boss tells a nasty joke, or when a coworker attempts a sexual advancement, but many everyday injustices perpetrate harassment, or are even side effects of the patriarchal system that have put us in this place to begin with. It is important we understand these transgressions to even begin to make a change. Like the women at Newsweek learned, you can’t start trouble unless you know the rules you need to break.
1. Unequal pay
I believe most people have an understanding that women—especially women of color—are not paid as much as their male complements. While we aren’t always clear on the exact numbers, most white women make 80 cents to a man’s dollar, and it only gets worse with many ethnicities. Hispanic women make 50-60 cents of a man’s dollar for doing the exact same work.
Not making a livable wage for work that shapes and changes an organization is blatantly wrong, and the fact that we haven’t corrected a discrepancy as visible as this is proof of how slow our society is to accept equality.
“The wage gap is a factor in harassment cases because a higher-up isn’t going to want to get rid of someone who is bringing in a lot of money or grants, despite any accusations,” UNO Ombuds and Communication Studies professor Shereen Bingham said. “Difference in pay underlies everything. Our culture is very focused on how much money you make, and organizations are shown to pay women less. That’s factual.”
Along with writing a catchy 80s tune, Donna Summers knew what she was talking about when she said “she works hard for the money, so you better treat her right.”
2. Lack of due credit
We’ve all heard the phrase “give credit where credit is due,” but it is often thrown out the window when collaborating with a woman. While men will often acknowledge the intelligence and talent of a female coworker and work together on a project, they will rarely offer her a spot as a co-author or a citable source on said project. People in our modern society are not quick to arrantly say they don’t value the work of a woman, but their actions typically are.
“She’ll [the woman in question] be asked for feedback or information, but she won’t get credit for things she’s doing,” Bingham said. “It’s not necessarily harassment, but it lessens the status of women. It’s still the ‘old boys club’ anywhere you go.”
3. Inappropriate or incorrect language and humor
While we’ve already discussed inappropriate jokes in the workplace, I’d also like to note how language plays a role in our offices and professional environments. While it is justifiably very hard for cis-gender women, non-binary and transgender individuals face an even greater amount of discrimination and backlash. Using the correct identifying pronouns is a key facet in respecting one’s character and integrity.
In addition to this, we must also be careful with words that have legal definitions. It is vital to speak up and make change in areas where these issues are prominent, but using divisive and accusatory language will not usually help a situation.
“Demonization of people doesn’t get us very far,” Bingham said. “I wouldn’t want to be in a society where anyone can say ‘that person touched my rear end in 1997 and now they should lose their job.’ That would be a caricature of what’s happening. I want to live in a society that’s fair and reasonable and doesn’t instantly damn someone. But I also don’t take anything lightly—we must hold everyone accountable.”
4. Weak training programs
Many organizations and companies have corporate training programs designed for convenience in their human resource departments, but I believe we have sacrificed authenticity and knowledge for that convenience. In many cases, harassment policies are either underrepresented and often not emphasized or are extremely severe. They are also often focused on legal liability, rather than actual information.
Bingham said that communication is often key in confronting harassment issues in companies. Some strategies include talk circles with colleagues, facilitated discussions, frequent and topical presentations and an understanding of the “Standpoint Theory,” which essentially teaches us that each individual comes to a perspective based on their standpoints (gender identity, sexual identity, religion, economic status, etc.)
“You want to find common ground that is knowledge-based,” Bingham said. People who have never experienced oppression don’t always seem to get it right away. However, talk down nature of it is not helpful. ‘If you do this behavior, you’ll instantly lose your job’ isn’t going to make people want to understand the whole culture. You don’t want to create defensiveness in a gray area, rather than stimulating real conversation and change.”
5. Lack of understanding of company/human resource policies
Within training programs is also the education of resources in a company or organization. Knowing human resource policies are vital to being a strong and compassionate employee, and those policies are not always on display or written on the back of our hands.
Having regular meetings or reminders about policies or having an “open-door” kind of dialogue with coworkers about company procedures would help tremendously for any kind of workplace. UNO’s Assistant to the Chancellor for Equity , Access and Diversity Charlotte Russell said her office will also make house calls if educators or employees want a refresher.
“Groups can practice practical things like inviting us to have meetings in their spaces,” Russell said. “It is so gratifying to bring Title IX and Employee Relations into regular meetings. Take advantage of your resources. If you allow us to help you, we will.”
6. Disproportionate mentorship
The “old boys club” Bingham previously mentioned starts early on in a man’s career. The mentorship and advisement people receive in the infant stages of their careers is often very cyclical in playing into gender hierarchies, as men often take on male mentees, and women like to encourage and empower other women. The lack of diversity and representation in our role models only plays into the hands of this issue. In an admirable campaign, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In website encouraged men to to mentor women instead of avoid them, in wake of popular celebrity sexual harassment accusations.
“People like to mentor people who are like them,” Bingham said. “If men are dominating in the workplace and they reach out to more men to take their places, it perpetrates the advancement of that whole dynamic.”
7. Inequality in hiring for job positions
While I like to think we are well past the days of filling quotas and hiring oppressed people for the sake of doing just that, it is also time to reevaluate how many white men (and usually, super old and lame white men) are in positions of power. I mean, the most obvious example is the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. We had the opportunity for something—someone—different, with a distinct perspective, but we didn’t let it happen.
It could be as easy as saying, “what about your experience as a woman will you bring to this position?” in a job interview, to allow for a new angle in an organization. Opening jobs to more candidates, advertising openings to different kinds of people, looking into resumes and finding those who are savvy in diversity—it should be just as important as the grammar and spelling in a cover letter.
However, I don’t want to see companies and organizations faking it until they make it. Just like people changing their tune and behavior when someone in their company is accused/acquitted of sexual harassment (hi, comedy community in regards to Louis C.K.), I don’t want to see companies suddenly refocus their hiring requirements because they were caught. It shouldn’t be about the public relations, but rather, the humanity of an organization.
“It is important for those in power to admit that they’re wrong,” Bingham said. “But it’s not just about how they’re seen. The reasons behind why people are being heard and why they’re losing their jobs is important, too, because there is a difference between what they feel forced to do, versus what the people in power want to do—what they believe in.”
8. Victim blaming
Blaming victims is a rampant issue in rape culture, and it is also exactly the reason people still don’t speak up about harassment. Whether it’s about the clothes they wore, the actions they displayed or the desires they once had, accused parties often jump on any opportunity to move the blame away from them.
Similarly, workplaces don’t always have the backs of those who come forward. The reason why is unclear, but the fear of retaliation and ridicule is a huge component in the underreported narrative of workplace harassment. Giving people more than one opportunity to speak about their experiences allows for an environment that says I embrace your feelings and am willing to help you no matter what.
Showing compassion for employees is not just the right thing to do, but it will amplify visible results in work and productivity. If someone feels ashamed and embarrassed to go to work because they fear for their safety, they probably aren’t accomplishing everything they can. Taking one another seriously and believing victims is step one in bettering the working climate for all.
“It starts with creating an environment of trust,” Russell said. “If someone comes to me for help, I will believe them, because why else would they be coming to me for help?”
9. Governmental legislation
It’s no secret that former President Barack Obama was much more concerned about gender equality and the implementation of programs like Title IX. Our government is our first and most dominant example of safety and leadership, and when President Trump speaks in a derogatory way about women (or, I mean, sexually assaults them), it sends a message about what we are willing to tolerate as a society. And it also predicts the kind of legislation that will—or will not—help situations of harassment.
“The Women’s March was the day after Trump’s inauguration,” Bingham said. “This is proof of how we feel. Obama was able to influence a rapid change, which was followed by a president who is the opposite of those movements. That galvanized the Women’s March and set the stage for women to speak out in a defiant and challenging way.”
10. The misunderstanding of what it means to harass someone
While we clearly need to reform our conversations around harassment, we also need to reimagine what harassment looks like to those who have experienced it.
“Harassment is in the experience of the beholder,” Russell said. “It’s not what you meant when you said or did what you did—it’s how it is perceived by the other person. ‘Unwelcome’ and ‘unwanted’ are words we really need to pay attention to.”
Consent is also a topic that plays into the understanding of harassment of any kind. Grasping boundaries and enforcing the “yes means yes” and “no means no” rules are key to any kind of action, sexual or otherwise. Some people might think their behaviors or language are romantic, kind or complimentary, but they may also make someone feel very uncomfortable. Being self-aware begs to be a woman’s daily task, but I implore men to double-check the things they say and do before they do them.
Bingham said: “People always say ‘the victim needs to tell me,’ but they should have asked, ‘does this joke bother you?’ instead. The other person doesn’t always give off a cue that they didn’t like something, and it’s helpful if someone has the confidence to speak up when they don’t like something, but unfortunately, that is often not the case. It is the responsibility of the actor to find out if what they’re doing is bothering the other person.”
We’d love to hear your stories, too. Comment below or message the Gateway Facebook page to share your thoughts and experiences about workplace harassment.
Part four of this series will be published on May 8, 2018.