Editorials

Making the battle against sexual harassment real and personal

Sexual assault survivors in Los Angeles take part in the #MeToo Survivors March against sexual abuse in November. As a reckoning over sexual harassment sweeps the country, leaders in business, academia and other walks of life are pushing to sustain the momentum and ensure a lasting cultural change.
Sexual assault survivors in Los Angeles take part in the #MeToo Survivors March against sexual abuse in November. As a reckoning over sexual harassment sweeps the country, leaders in business, academia and other walks of life are pushing to sustain the momentum and ensure a lasting cultural change. TNS

Recently, I sat through a mandatory 2-hour online course about preventing sexual harassment in the office. Through the cheesy examples and terrible acting, I began to wonder: Do these trainings actually work?

With the outpouring of sexual harassment and assault allegations against dozens of powerful men in the national spotlight and accusations against a Pitman High School teacher of having a sexual relationship with a student, I’d say, no.

Real solutions must go way beyond training videos mandated for all companies with 50 or more employees every two years. It has to be part of the culture, not just a way to reduce a company’s liability.

The #MeToo campaign that exploded across social media empowered thousands of victims to step forward to declare their membership in this unfortunate sorority. Many are my friends and former coworkers.

An ABC News-Washington Post poll in October found that 3 in 10 American women have put up with unwanted advances from male coworkers; 1 in 4 have experienced advances from men who had influence over their employment. Among women who’ve personally experienced unwanted sexual advances in the workplace, 95 percent believe male harassers usually go unpunished.

Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., psychologist and author of “The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence,” points out that centuries of advice from books like Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince” convince many people that attaining power or prestige “requires force, deception, manipulation and coercion.”

Keltner says he and other social scientists have documented how feeling powerful can change how ordinary citizens behave, actually making them lose empathy. “Powerful men, studies show, overestimate the sexual interest of others and erroneously believe that the women around them are more attracted to them than is actually the case.”

But Keltner’s research shows that “empathy and social intelligence are vastly more important to acquiring and exercising power than are force, deception or terror.” This research should equip us to reject the longstanding misconceptions of how leaders rise to power; it should lead us to instead practice respect and cooperation.

The problem should be addressed long before someone steps onto the first rung of the career ladder.

I asked a few male friends how they guard against being accused of sexual harassment on their jobs. One said he learned the fundamental rule as a boy – treat others as you want to be treated.

If we followed the Golden Rule every day, we’d all be better off.

Another piece of the solution is for top executives to enforce company harassment policies. Chai Feldblum, commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has studied workplace harassment extensively. He identified two common problems in how companies handle complaints: “Top executives aren’t serious about enforcing harassment policies and are reluctant to punish star employees.”

After the “star” firings we’ve seen lately, corporations must continue to enforce consequences on perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault no matter how much it costs them.

Tenets of the #MeToo movement should become a standard, not become a passing fad. Victims of sexual harassment and assault – male or female – must have the courage to speak up in the moment, whether in response to a “joke” or “locker room banter” or rape.

We must act, too, by keeping our colleagues in check and knowing that our voice is one of many; in a chorus, each voice is amplified.

I’m inspired by the launch of the Time’s Up initiative, started by more than 300 prominent women in the entertainment industry to fight sexual harassment in any workplace. They’ve created a $15 million fund to provide legal support for male and female victims and increase gender parity across all industries.

Terms like “sexual harassment” and “sexual assault” lose significance when you hear them repeated over years of training. Putting faces and names to victims helps them become real again.

No more silence. No more waiting. No more tolerance of harassment and abuse. Time’s up.

Turlock resident Jessica Chang Irish works for the Center for Human Services and provides public speaking and media consulting services.

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