Sunday, March 13, 2016

Why Aren’t We Doing More to Stop Workplace Harassment?

News broke last week that Sujit Choudhry, Dean of UC Berkeley’s law school, was being placed on indefinite leave after his executive assistant filed suit alleging sexual harassment. Two days later, after a vocal outcry from alumni and the public, Dean Choudhry resigned. The details of Berkeley’s apparent mishandling of the incident were explored by the SF Chronicle in some depth yesterday in an article tellingly entitled, “UC Berkeley has history of tolerating sexual harassment.” When the harassment was first reported, Choudhry was given a one-year, ten-percent pay cut and ordered to write his victim a letter of apology (oh, and pay for counseling on his own dime) – all in secret. The leave and subsequent resignation did not occur until the executive assistant filed suit, thereby making the story public. Michael O’Hare, a Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley, put it best when he wrote that the school’s initial punishment “might as well be an open letter to women on campus telling them ‘if powerful people around here mistreat you, we will protect them and punish you if you complain.’”

The incident stirred up many personal feelings for me. When I left my chemical engineering career for the law, I hoped that I was also leaving behind the misogyny of the male-dominated engineering field as well. Surely, I thought, attorneys who learned all about the law in school would understand better than anyone the problems of discrimination and harassment, especially in the workplace. It turns out I was wrong. One survey has found that thirty percent of women in the legal field report facing sexual harassment, only one percentage point behind science/tech/engineering/math (aka the “STEM” fields). As horrifying as these numbers seem, they pale in comparison to the harassment faced by women in the service industry. A 2014 survey by non-profit Restaurant Opportunities Center United found that of women working in the restaurant business, 66% had been sexually harassed by managers, 80% by co-workers, and 78% by customers.

Sexual harassment is an incredibly important issue for women in the workplace. While I am lucky enough not to have been a victim myself, I have seen it happen to others and I know the trauma it can cause. Addressing the problem requires serious leadership from workplace managers and supervisors. So why do we keep trying to fix it with terrible, cheesy, and downright offensive sexual harassment training videos and sessions? Until we start treating sexual harassment as a serious issue, rather than just an annual mandatory hour you have to spend watching a video from the ‘90s, I don’t see the problem improving anytime soon. Another problem is that these training videos typically seem to focus on blatantly obvious examples of harassment. The videos that I’ve had to watch at schools and workplaces all failed to recognize the micro-aggressions that are just as problematic, and far more frequent.

A video went viral a few years ago when a woman simply filmed herself walking through the streets of New York City, documenting the constant street harassment women face every day. Surely the generation of Twitter, Tumblr, and memes can come up with something better than the horrible sexual harassment training videos we get now. (And please, let’s fix it before I have to take the undoubtedly terrible sexual harassment training that I was told last week I have to take as a UC employee…ironically in an email sent the same day the Choudhry lawsuit was filed).


India Powell said...

I really appreciate this timely post, Meredith. The news of sexual harassment out of Boalt is both shocking, and not. It is surprising to me that such a gross incidence of workplace harassment could occur, and go virtually unpunished, at such a prestigious and progressive institution, but at the same time, it is very clear to me that the legal profession as a whole is still a boy's club. And I think your point about the lack of education around micro-aggressions and more subtle forms of sexual harassment is spot on. Working at a large corporate law firm last summer, I quickly realized that a key part of succeeding in that kind of male-dominated environment requires certain behavior characteristics and modifications. And that makes me so angry!

RC said...

I definitely agree that the cheesy sexual harassment videos from every HR department only show the more blatant forms of sexual harassment in the workplace. More often than not, a lot of the harassment is more subtle and the victim spends time second-guessing whether or not what they experienced was indeed harassment (which it often is). By the time it becomes clearer and more pervasive, it might be too late, or the harasser might get the sense that such behavior thus far is acceptable or welcome. I can't help but think that the reason these microaggressions are so passable is that society is so accustomed to treating women this way, which is unfuriating.

Amanda said...

Unfortunately, I have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. And I realized how difficult it is, as an employee, to push back against this harassment. You immediately realize the very real consequence of losing your job and livelihood by lodging a complaint. That's why it's so infuriating when institutions like Boalt fail to address the harassment. Even worse, Boalt actually directed most of its energy to protecting the harasser. The onus must be on management and the institution itself to punish abusers and create an environment where victims can lodge complaints and initiate investigations. Most people are not in a position to jeopardize their job in order to address harassment. This power imbalance won't go away anytime soon, which is why institutions must step up and make the well-being of their employees a priority.