By Joshua Pechthalt, CFT President
The daily revelations of sexual misconduct by men in authority seem like a turning point in the struggle for gender equality. While this appears to be a sea change, we must remember that Donald Trump’s claim he could grab women inappropriately without their consent failed to derail his run for the White House. That, however, may have been the opening salvo.
This year has seen an avalanche of sexual misconduct charges, with women courageously stepping forward to speak out about how they had been abused by high profile, powerful men. Women are now being believed — an important first step.
Missing from the headlines so far are the abuses suffered by working class women in their workplaces and the constraint they feel to tell their stories. A 2016 study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that 90,000 women reported incidences of sexual abuse on the job. The EEOC believes this number falls far short of those who have suffered sexual harassment and who are unwilling to come forward.
Even for women who reported such abuse, disclosures seem to go nowhere. One reason is that according to a recent study, as many as 75 percent of those who have reported sexual harassment suffer some form of retaliation. Those who have a union have greater recourse to report such behavior and see some justice. However, most of the workforce is not unionized.
Sexual harassment was first addressed in California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act as part of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law was strengthened in 2016 with the requirement that any workplace with 50 or more employees include a training on sexual harassment.
Unfortunately, according to the EEOC report, “Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool — it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.” Because of this overemphasis on liability, training can become part of the problem and does not address the underlying culture and power imbalance that produces sexual harassment.
While going public may work when it involves a politician or television star, it will likely have little impact for women in less high profile areas of work. The training needs to include the issue of power dynamics and why those in power feel entitled to assert their power by demeaning those less powerful, and specifically why men assert their masculinity by demeaning women. Training should cover how to create a culture in which women are empowered to report an abuse and not feel embarrassed by or responsible for the harassment.
Another approach that may lessen retaliation for women reporting sexual misconduct is to create an independent body of individuals trained and well-versed in this issue. Such a reporting board may allow women to feel less hesitant in reporting sexual misconduct.
We do, however, have to be mindful that charges of sexual misconduct have the potential to be used as a way to settle scores or extract payoffs. An independent body would be more likely to discern fact from fiction.
The CFT and all unions should be part of the process that develops these and other just solutions. Ultimately, changing the behavior of men will require more women speaking out, and more women being elected to positions of authority. Clearly, we have a long way to go.