We, too, can change the culture of sexual harassment.
The current national spotlight on the prevalence and insidiousness of sexual harassment is a welcome paradigm shift in our culture. Even though I have worked for 36 years in a field traditionally dominated by men, I myself never experienced egregious levels of misconduct. In fact, my welcome to the legal community in Homer in 1984 as a young, naïve female attorney was respectful and supportive, thanks in great part to the open mindedness of Homer’s attorneys, judges and court staff. I hope I didn’t take their support for granted.
Perhaps because I was spared the direct impact of sexual harassment as I worked in Homer, I may have become complacent as to its crippling effect on others in our community, even today.
That complacency was shattered the very same weekend I watched the entertainment industry celebrate its newfound awareness and resolve against sexual harassment. That night I received a cold call from a current and local victim of its effects. While no field of work is immune, this particular situation involves an important service sector of our community.
As the caller described the inappropriate conduct and comments she has suffered at the hands of her supervisor, I quickly recognized the kind of communications that create a hostile work environment. In fact, a primer on what not to say or do to your subordinates could have included much of what she suffered.
As disappointing as it was to hear that an individual in this day and age did not grasp proper workplace boundaries, it was appalling to learn that other victims had complained about the same manager. It was so shocking, in fact, that I feel compelled to share this narrative with my community.
Well intentioned but flawed employment grievance procedures can add to a harassed employee’s sense that she is working in a hostile environment. For example, the confidentiality of disciplinary action can feel like complicit silence to a victim. As an employer weighs potential liability, the victim can feel less valued than the offender. Treating each complaint in a vacuum can reinforce denial of histories and patterns.
I am confident that the collective wisdom and compassion of our community can positively inform meaningful reform of these investigative systems. Imagine the potential of a reform grounded in trauma informed care and effective communication. My purpose in writing this piece is to challenge us to help make that dream a reality.
It is remarkable that as a society we are suddenly recognizing the rights of all to work in places free of harassment and abuse.
When victims do come forward to assert those rights, it is incumbent on us to ensure that their stories are heard in a fair and balanced process. I volunteer to help in that process, and I am sure there are other community members willing and able to add their experience to a review and reform effort. Let us make this movement about more than black dresses.
Ginny Espenshade is a Homer attorney and director of the Homer Youth Court.
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