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Saint Mary’s workshop addresses sexual harassment in the workplace

| Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Fueled by the mindset that a Saint Mary’s education cultivates exceptional leaders equipped with the knowledge to pinpoint and respond to injustice, the College hosted a workshop addressing sexual harassment in the workplace in Stapleton Lounge on Tuesday.

Photo courtesy of Kara Kelly

Chair of the department of English, Laura Haigwood, discusses sexual harassment and its impact on marginalized communities during a workshop held Tuesday in Stapleton Lounge.

Chair of the English department, Laura Haigwood, who moderated a panel discussion preceding the workshop, said the College aims to prepare students to encounter harsh social realities.

“This workshop is the brainchild of President Jan Cervelli, who wants to ensure all Belles have a toolkit for responding appropriately and effectively to sexual harassment, should it happen that you personally experience it,” Haigwood said.

Treating men and women with equal respect in professional spaces demonstrates respect for basic human dignity, special assistant to Cervelli, Kara Kelly, said.

“We are in a crucial moment in our culture, galvanized by the courageous #MeToo movement to address an issue that has, for too long, been willfully ignored — no more,” Kelly said. “Courageous women with much to lose, and many who have lost much for their resistance to this kind of abuse, have awakened us. We owe it to them, and to all who are part of our College, to root out this problem once and for all and to entrench the workplace quality that we all value.”

Kelly said the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that 75 percent of female employees have experienced sexual harassment.

“That’s a staggering figure that should give all of us pause,” Kelly said. “For too many women, it rings all too true. Perhaps even more telling about the workplace culture in our country, the EEOC also reports that 90 percent of those who have experienced harassment never take formal action. It’s time to change such a chilling climate.”

Navigating instances of sexual harassment can be difficult when the term itself is prone to varying interpretations, Saint Mary’s Title IX coordinator, Kris Urschel, said.

“The formal definition is one thing, and we keep that … front and center at all times,” Urschel said. “I think it does warrant a little bit more conversation in terms of ‘What does that truly mean?’ and ‘What does that possibly look like in the workplace?’”

Sexual harassment can prevent employees from fulfilling their assigned tasks and from producing the best quality of work, as they may struggle to feel accepted and valued as a working professional, Urschel said.

“[Sexual harassment] … interferes with what we refer to as creating an intimidating or hostile work environment,” she said.

Professor of history Jamie Wagman said up to 30 percent of college-aged women and up to 70 percent of women in the workplace have been sexually harassed, and their experiences can result in negative self-perceptions, denial of employment opportunities and threats to their physical safety.

“Some states have enforced state and local-level legal protections against sexual harassment targeted at LGBTQ people, but currently 30 states have no protection,” Wagman said. “Also, transgender people are especially prone to job discrimination and sexual harassment, and they have little to no recourse.”

The field of critical race feminism may serve as a helpful lens through which to view this issue, for it emphasizes the intersectionality of various forces at play, Wagman said.

“Racialized sexual harassment calls upon sexual stereotypes of minority women, and this harassment is present across a variety of institutions and is associated with great post-traumatic stress syndrome,” Wagman said. “As Anita Hill wrote in ‘Speaking Truth to Power,’ sexual harassment is underreported. Only three percent of instances culminate in formal complaints.”

Unwelcome or threatening behaviors disproportionately impact marginalized populations, such as women of color and individuals of a low socioeconomic class, Haigwood said.

“There’s already been lots of discussion in relation to the ‘Me Too’ movement about the situation of women in food services and hospitality services who are, for a number of reasons, more vulnerable and less able to speak out than women who are comparatively more privileged,” Haigwood said.

A work environment in which conditions of employment depend on sexual favors, physical acts or verbal requests for or innuendos to such acts perpetrates sexual harassment, Wagman said.

“[Sexual harassment] can be verbal or physical,” she said. “It also can be non-verbal. Sexual harassment can occur in the workplace or in a learning environment, [such as in] a school or university. It can happen in many different scenarios, including after-hours conversations, exchanges in the hallways, non-office settings of employers or peers.”

S-O-S Coordinator at the Family Justice Center of St. Joseph County Amelia Thomas said individuals who have experienced unwanted sexual comments or advances have the agency to decide that they were sexually harassed.

“It doesn’t matter if someone means it in a joking manner,” Thomas said. “It’s up to victim to decide what is or is not okay. … Be cognizant of the fact that [sexual harassment] is not based on the person’s intent.”

One major misconception surrounding sexual harassment involves the affected populations, Thomas said.

“Harassment does not always have to be directed at a specific individual,” she said. “It can be something when you’re looking at groups, whether that’s gender or race or LGBTQ. … You can still make a report even if you’re not the direct victim. If you’re witnessing [behavior] that is offensive to you … you can still make a report, and that is considered sexual harassment.”

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About Martha Reilly

Martha is a senior majoring in English literature and political science. She currently serves as Saint Mary's editor but still values the Oxford comma in everyday use.

Contact Martha