Local Champions in MA fighting against Sexual Harassment
Opening the discussion about sexual harassment both in the workplace and in our communities is critical to developing the awareness and momentum needed to effect widespread change in how sexual harassment is understood and interpreted on a much larger scale. Change, however, requires action–a conscious choice on the part of the individuals who desire to be agents of change. Therefore, we understand that discussion is only the first step; in this article we will explore the local champions of #MeToo. Individuals right here in Massachusetts are taking the action required to move the ideals of #MeToo beyond the realm of critical discussion.
First let’s take another look at the definition of sexual harassment and what our local champions are doing to change, challenge, and strengthen our understanding of the behavior.
Understanding sexual harassment today
Is there such a thing as non-overt sexual harassment? Can someone be an aggressor, perpetrator, or silent bystander of workplace harassment and not even realize it? Where do we draw the line?
In our previous article “What #MeToo is Teaching Massachusetts Women about Reporting Sexual Harassment at Work” we explore the changing consciousness about what can be considered sexual harassment and how employers can create a culture of “zero-tolerance” regarding all sexually aggressive behaviors, including the less overt ones.
But it is important to note that as a society we are still toeing the line between understanding sexual harassment as it was originally defined and the ever-evolving new definition of sexual harassment. At times, our understanding as employers, individuals, and employees can still be partially entrenched in the old ways of thinking, which splits harassment into the two binary categories of quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment. Many people, even today, struggle to agree on what sexual harassment truly means as advocates of #MeToo are showing us that the old definitions must be adapted and expanded to take into account the current social consciousness.
Quoted in our previous article as well, president of Wellesley College in Eastern Massachusetts, Paula Johnson, recently said in an article about sexual harassment in higher education, “the cumulative effect of sexual harassment is extremely damaging.” She then went on to urge the public to understand that sexual harassment is inherently about power dynamics, “the put-downs as opposed to the come-ons.” These types of “put-downs” can include women getting the impression that they don’t belong or are not respected in the workplace, and in academia.
An individual’s perception of what is and what is not sexual harassment makes matters more complex. And, often the accused alleges that they didn’t know that what they were doing was considered sexual harassment. A simple gesture or comment to one person can be seen as a sexual advancement from another.
When determining if sexual harassment has happened in the workplace or any other environment, many courts use the “reasonable person” standard. This standard begs the question “would another person of the same sex consider the comments or actions of the defendant extreme or pervasive to create a hostile working environment.”
For example, if a woman alleged that her male co-worker made sexual advances toward her and through investigation it was found that her male co-worker had invited her to several group outings with many other co-workers, a court may rule in the defendant’s favor by assuming the “reasonable person” standard.
The willingness of the court to utilize the reasonable person standard makes the work of furthering awareness about the changing definition of sexual harassment all the more important. Champions of change who bravely share their stories, experiences, and traumas associated with harassment and sexual misconduct add to the richness and depth of the changing definition. Speaking out allows the courts to be armed with even more examples to make comparisons to as new harassment cases filter in.
What is happening in Massachusetts as a result of the #MeToo movement?
As more individuals feel the need to speak out about sexual harassment, we have seen an increase in women taking on more roles in the Massachusetts community and federal government, universities taking on a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and misconduct, and other initiatives such as #OurTurn, which targets vulnerable and low-wage earners.
These individuals championing for change, whether on a personal or governmental level, are all important. Survivors telling their stories can give other survivors the courage to tell their story and get help. Women taking office will have more power to evoke change, and get a message heard. Universities who take a zero-tolerance standpoint are making the classroom safe and not hostile for their students.
The #MeToo movement has started a huge discussion on “what is next” and “how do employees, as well as students, make sure their environment is safe?”
In our last article, we discussed three actionable steps a company could take to change the office culture as the emotional, legal and ethical toll that sexual harassment can have on employees can be detrimental to the work environment and could force the employee to seek employment elsewhere. The effects of an employee leaving could include legal recourse for the company, a tainted reputation, and in some cases public outcry–which in turn could drastically affect the business. Champions of change are teaching us to expect more from businesses.
A study released by SCG Advertising and Public Relations, based in Parsippany, New Jersey, found that 62.5 percent of 1,500 participants would pay higher prices for services if the company was known for taking a stand against sexual harassment.
Taking a stand against sexual harassment, whether on a personal or global scale, makes a difference. Below we’ve highlighted individuals and organizations right here in Massachusetts who are taking a stand and effecting change in this new era of awareness.
Massachusetts Champions Working Towards a Better and Safer Community
1- Maude Gorman, Advocate of Victim Rights and Sexual Violence
In early July, Miss Plymouth County winner, Maude Gorman, a survivor and advocate of victims’ rights and sexual violence, resigned her title and released a statement after a skit exposed another beauty queen mocking the #MeToo movement after it was announced the bikini portion of the contest would be eradicated.
As a survivor of gang rape, Gorman said, “I immediately was upset. My heart dropped and I knew I had to take a step back away from the crown.”
The Miss Massachusetts Board of Directors issued an apology on Facebook as the skit, which was written by a male survivor of sexual harassment, was not in the script.
“The skit was meant as a satirical poke at those who are upset that (the) swimsuit (portion of the pageant) is going away,” the writer stated. “It was intended to be a nod to the #MeToo movement, not a knock on it.”
While an apology was issued by the Miss Massachusetts Board of Directors and the skit’s writer, Gorman could not return to the crown.
Gorman now volunteers at the Center for Hope and Healing, a rape crisis center in Lowell, and is also seeking funding for the Hope Project. The Hope Project, which she started at the center, will give out hope bags to survivors. These teal bags, the color of sexual assault awareness, will include resources for the victims, quotes for inspiration, a stuffed animal and journal.
Camila Barrera, director of the Center for Hope and Healing Youth Access to Support and Services told the Boston Globe that most sexual assaults take place before the age of 18, and many victims don’t tell their parents out of guilt and fear. She went on to say that, “Maude is a great advocate for the youth. When she talks about her experience, she empowers other survivors to talk. She shows them that it gets better.”
2- Dana Hall | The Forum
Kristen Ryan, the Dean of Students at the Dana Hall School in Wellesley, MA moderated a forum discussing the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment concerns and how significant of a role our current culture plays in the lives of young girls.
The #MeToo movement has raised several concerns and questions for parents, as well as educators. How can educators and parents empower and teach the young women that they support, either at home or at school? What lessons should educators and parents teach young women in the age of #MeToo? How can they use this time to make these young women aware, give them the ability to evolve and stand up against a potential aggressor?
During this hour long forum, the three panelists, Linda Williams, Ph.D., Jen Slonaker, MSW, and Mary Beth Medvide, Ph.D., gave great insight on the questions at hand.
“One in six women are sexually assaulted. When someone goes off to college, she has a one in six chance of having unwanted sexual contact,” said Williams, a senior research scientist and co-director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women.
Slonaker, Vice President of Education and Organizational Development at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts discussed how in her role, educating 10,000 parents, youth and professionals, she is overhauling the curriculum to “reducing the perpetration of sexual harassment” by using “social and emotional learning skills around self awareness, self management and social awareness for folks that may be perpetrating sexual harassment.”
On the other side, Medvide, a licensed psychologist, discusses talking with the young girls, who may be sending illicit pictures because they view that as showing interest in a relationship, and really looking at the functionality of sending that picture. “It’s about helping girls separate sexuality from intimacy,” said Medvide.
The Dana Hall Forum is bringing the message of awareness and advocacy to young girls who, as Ryan states, “are using this as a moment of awareness, evolution, and revolution”.
3- Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH)
While strides have been made with survivors speaking out against their aggressors, it can still be difficult for an individual to speak out against his or her aggressor when they are immigrants, low-wage earners or in a vulnerable position.
For example, a recent study done by MassCOSH found that 58 percent of Latina workers had experienced sexual harassment, as well as feeling unable to speak out due to fear of retaliation. “Unfortunately, any gains made as a result of the #MeToo movement have almost been cancelled out for immigrant workers because of the current political and anti-immigrant climate,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of MassCOSH.
In effort to combat sexual harassment for immigrants, low-wage earners and vulnerable workers, MassCOSH has formed the #OurTurn alliance. This alliance will give a voice to any person who has fear of workplace retaliation due to them speaking out.
“From airport workers to janitors, low-wage workers in particular are facing sexual harassment on the job at higher rates, but are often scared to speak up because of the economic impact it could have on their families,” said Roxana Rivera, vice president of 32BJ SEIU. “It is indeed workers turn to have the attention and resources needed to address the pervasive sexual harassment within their industries.”
Fear of retaliation is a powerful thing. Many survivors have trouble speaking out because they feel no one will stand behind them. For MassCOSH, their whole mission is to stand behind these employees to make sure their working environment is safe and healthy.
With powerful groups like MassCOSH and more women running for government offices supporting survivors, more stories can be told.
4- The Women Running for Congress
In 2018, a record number of women have decided to run for congress in Massachusetts.
In a statement to Mass Live Media, spokeswoman for the Barbara Lee Foundation, Amanda Hunter, said, “Certainly what we’re seeing in Massachusetts mirrors what we’re seeing across the country in that women are feeling a sense of urgency, like now’s the time to step up to run for office,” pointing to recent activism surrounding the #MeToo movement and women’s marches. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation seeks to advance women’s representation in American politics.
On July 31, 2018, Massachusetts House of Representatives passed the state Representative Lori Ehrlich’s sexual misconduct bill, which covers sexual harassment. This bill would require universities to conduct anonymous sexual assault surveys on their campuses, as well as release their findings publicly.
Already, 26 schools have already implemented a climate survey
If the bill reaches law status, a task force made up of 19 members would be developed. Sixteen governor employees, students and the attorney general would sit on this task force.
“I am proud to have filed and championed this bill,” said Ehrlich. “Every campus is different in regards to the prevalence and nature of sexual violence — but what is true across the board is that students deserve a safe place to learn, study, and grow as well as transparency from school administrations.”
5- The Massachusetts Universities and their Commitment to Transparency
To fix a problem such as sexual harassment, whether at the workplace or in a classroom setting, there has to be a sense of transparency, which some are adverse to.
In December 2017, Enterprise News requested a report on how many sexual harassment complaints had been filed by students, as well as staff members from Bridgewater State University (BSU). University vice president for marketing and communications, Paul Jean, stated that “BSU would not be able to provide any information on such complaints, because it does not maintain any sort of centralized system that tracks them” and even more so that, “it is against Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and education privacy law, to release that kind of information.”
However, in the beginning of April 2018, BSU released a statement to Enterprise News saying that BSU would release three to four years of numbers, which would be presented to BSU’s Board of Trustees and then released to the public.
While BSU only just decided to release that kind of report on April 17, 2018, many universities in Massachusetts had already become transparent.
These universities include the University of Massachusetts Amherst, UMass-Boston, Fitchburg State University, UMass-Lowell, Framingham State University and many more.
For UMass Amherst, they were quick to provide a report as they’ve been in discussion with Graduate Women in STEM about sexual misconduct on campus and was under request from the Daily Hampshire Gazette for the same information.
Since the initial request by Enterprise News, many universities have released these reports.
- BSU: Since 2014, BSU has received 37 complaints from students and employees.
- UMass-Amherst: Between 2012 and 2017, UMass-Amherst has received 34 complaints.
- Framingham State University: Between 2014 and 2017, FSU has had 13 complaints.
- Salem State: In the last three years, Salem State has had two complaints.
- Westfield State: Since 2014, Westfield State has received 33 complaints.
- MCLA: Since 2014, MCLA has received 15 complaints.
As more women, students and employees, step out to talk about their experiences or file complaints, change can happen.
In our last article, we mentioned that the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) dictates that you have 300 days from the last discriminatory act to file an official complaint. If you or someone you know feels that they have been the victim of workplace harassment it is crucial that you speak up as soon as the incident happens.
Working with an experienced attorney can ensure that your rights are protected and a successful resolution is reached on your case. The Law Offices of Michael O. Shea have 25 years of experience working in employment law and litigation with a focus as a sexual harassment lawyer in Massachusetts.