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#MeToo Hits Fast Food: Why McDonald’s Workers Are Out on a Historic Strike Today

Wednesday, September 19th, 2018

Workers at McDonald’s are set to walk out of work today in ten U.S. cities: Chicago, St. Louis, Durham, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Orlando and San Francisco.

While a string of fast food strikes has hit chains in recent years, this time workers aren’t walking out for higher wages, but for respect and freedom from harassment in an industry known for rampant abuse.

In the non-unionized fast food industry, marked by high turnover, low wages, and poor to non-existent benefits, sexual harassment is endemic. A recent study of fast food restaurants such as Taco Bell and McDonald’s found that 40 percent of workers reported experiencing sexual harassment at work. A full 60 percent of the women who reported multiple occurrences of harassment said they felt pressure to accept the abuse because they could not afford to quit their job.

McDonald’s has faced a slew of lawsuits related to sexual harassment in recent years. In October 2016, Fight for $15, the group advocating for minimum-wage increases in the service sector, filed 15 sexual harassment claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing the McDonalds corporation and franchisees of failing to protect—and sometimes retaliating against—workers reporting harassment.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, an organization supporting the striking workers, McDonald’s management routinely “initiated or disregarded” instances of sexual harassment. Among the incidents reported by the Center: A 15-year-old cashier in St. Louis who was asked by an older male employee: “Have you ever had white chocolate inside you?” When the 15-year-old reported the harassment to her manager, she was told, “you will never win that battle.” In New Orleans, a female worker complained about a co-worker groping her, to which her manager responded that she should “take it to the next level” with him. This same worker also endured an attempted sexual assault, which she did not report because of her past experiences.

“By funding the legal representation in these cases, we hope to help ensure that these charges will be a catalyst for significant change,” Sharyn Tejani, Director of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, said in a statement. “Few women working in low-wage jobs have the means or the financial security to challenge sexual harassment. As shown by these charges and thousands of intakes we have received at the Fund from women in every industry, those who report their abuse are often fired, demoted or mocked—and since nothing is done to stop the harassment, nothing changes.”

The TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund is the latest example of the #MeToo movement’s solidarity with low-wage workers. The Fund, which arose as a response to the sexual harassment faced by women in Hollywood, has now amassed over 200 volunteer lawyers, and has pledged to support “the factory worker, the waitress, the teacher, the office worker.” The organization was also led to this cross-class alliance in part by expressions of solidarity from workers across sectors, including a letter signed by 700,000 female farmworkers associated with the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, and a 2017 “Take Back the Workplace” march in Los Angeles.

The strike is historic. While labor organizing campaigns have often made sexual harassment a focal point, this strike marks the first multi-state action devoted solely to the issue. 

Workers organizing against sexual harassment at McDonald’s can draw from a long tradition. In the 1830s, one of the first labor struggles in the early phases of American industrialization centered around addressing the sexual harassment and assault faced by female mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts.

In one of the first efforts to organize workers at a restaurant chain, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) launched a six-year campaign during the 1960s to organize Playboy Bunnies. The campaign centered around combating the sexist workplace of the Playboy Clubs, an environment rooted in Hugh Hefner’s ethos that “women should be obscene and not heard.”

In the book Feminism Unfinished, Dorothy Sue Cobble writes that tenacious HERE organizer Myra Wolfgang told reporters the Bunnies would “bite back” against Playboy’s sexist working conditions.  And that’s just what they did. According to Cobble, management ultimately agreed to a “national contract promising to pay wages to Bunnies (previously the women relied solely on tips) and allow Bunnies more discretion over uniform design, customer interactions, and company appearance standards.”

While historically unions have (albeit sometimes unsuccessfully) been a bulwark against sexual harassment, fast-food empires like McDonald’s have always been closed off to unions. Without the protection of a union, fast food workers are particularly vulnerable to harassment. But, according to sexual harassment expert Lin Farley, the equation can also be reversed: Harassment can be a tool to prevent unionization and collective worker struggle. “You have fast-food managers systematically using sexual harassment to keep turnover high, so they don’t have to unionize, they don’t have to give higher wages,” Farley told On the Media.

That might be changing, however. With a more class-conscious #MeToo movement, a wave of militant teachers’ strikes, anti-sexual harassment campaigns and strikes in the majority female hotel industry, it’s clear that women are fed up with abuse in the workplace. The McDonald’s strike shows that this increased organizing may soon translate into more wins for labor in the most exploited sectors like the fast food industry, where class struggle is now on the menu.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rachel Johnson is a writer based in Chicago. She holds a master’s degree in U.S. history from Northwestern University.

This is why workplace harassment training is so ineffective

Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

It’s a scenario that has become familiar to almost anyone who works in an office.

After “recent events around the country,” a well-meaning sexual harassment educator comes in to teach the letter of the law. The mandatory training provides information on “each and every sexual harassment law,” but the effects fall somewhere between useless and detrimental. The trainer comes at a large financial cost and proves to be of questionable value. Ultimately, the trainees leave discouraged and the hostile climate remains.

This all-too-familiar scene was demonstrated by the arrival of Petey the Sexual Harassment Panda on South Park, way back in 1999. His song-and-dance approach before a class of fourth graders was obviously a caricature. But sexual harassment experts say the problems he demonstrated — overly legalistic trainings that are more about liability protection than culture change and that come without proven results — have become ubiquitous, even as America reckons with the #MeToo moment. Trainers and training companies make a mint off of these trainings, more and more places are mandating them, and there is a built-in disincentive for trainers and employers to ever really explore whether they are helping to reduce harassment.

Fran Sepler, a consultant and trainer who has worked in sexual harassment prevention for more than 30 years, says that trainings that focus mostly on what the law says are not productive and may actually convey that “anything short of illegal behavior is tacitly acceptable.”

“Even though unlawful harassment is a terrible thing and a problem, your odds of being [illegally] harassed are relatively small, say 20 percent for women and less for men,” she explained. “Rude and uncivil behavior — close to 100 percent experience that at some point.” Yet the typical workplace harassment training video shows unrealistic situations that don’t match up with real life. “I show clips of about 50 videos,” Sepler said, “All show people putting their hands on the backs of colleagues.”

In the 1990s, a series of Supreme Court rulings had the effect of giving companies an incentive to do sexual harassment training: liability protection. Linda Seabrook, general counsel and director of legal programs for the non-profit Futures Without Violence said that this was a big factor in the growth of the industry. [Full disclosure: Futures Without Violence has previously provided its programming for ThinkProgress staff and other employees at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund].

“The reason they do sexual harassment training is not prevention,” Seabrook told ThinkProgress. “It’s so they can avail themselves of a certain defense: Faragher-Ellerth.” The term refers to a pair of judicial precedents (Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth) that suggested employers who do trainings can be protected from liability for some sexual harassment that might occur among their employees.

Alas, she said, these trainings on what is prohibited do not solve the problem at all. “I don’t understand how people think that type of training will lead to prevention. It trains you on the law and the employer’s policy. It does not and cannot at all train or educate you on what fosters or facilitates this type of conduct and/or what type of workplace doesn’t allow for this type of conduct.”

A lucrative industry

In 1998, the Los Angeles Times predicted court rulings would soon spur employers to spend big to protect themselves from future liability by providing sexual harassment training to their employees. It cited a projection that “U.S. employers will spend $10 billion annually on employment-law-related training by 2000, up from $5 billion in 1995, with sexual harassment prevention one of the main topics.” Two decades later, one training company told the paper it had received 2,150 requests for its programs in January — over 8 times more than the previous January.

Seabrook said Futures Without Violence has seen a significant increase in the number of “workplace education” sessions it it has been asked to do since the start of the #MeToo movement. But to be successful, she noted, the focus really has to be on building a thriving workplace community: the “deep-seated gender norms,” the sexism, the misogyny, and the anti-LGBTQ sentiments in our society require more than “a one-hour training or a two-hour training once a year.”

Jocelyn Frye, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is an expert on sexual harassment policy. She said there’s growth in the demand for harassment training: “People who do trainings are getting a significant uptick,” she said. And she believes trainings can be a good thing, “but it has to be good training.”

“Nobody funds research”

One of the biggest obstacles to culture change is ignorance — sometimes willful — about what the problems are and what actually helps to solve them. In the past, Frye said, “employers historically have been unwilling to do certain types of assessments because they feared it could be used [against them] in litigation.” And few employers’ harassment training providers have had the ability or volition to find out if their methods are working.

That’s why so few businesses have embraced an evidence-based approach to figuring out what actually works.

“The fact that there isn’t info is itself sort of the news,” said U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Commissioner (EEOC) Chai Feldblum, who co-chairs the commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. She co-authored a 2016 report for that task force, asking, essentially, why the problem remains so pervasive and what can be done about it.

In a telephone interview, she told ThinkProgress, “The fact that the evidence hasn’t shown that the type of training done for a decade [to be effective] doesn’t say training isn’t important. It just says training — in a vacuum — doesn’t seem to have much of an impact.” What limited research there is suggests that some things do help: leadership can change office culture, management can hold people accountable, the organization can set clear policies that go beyond the legalistic, and workplaces can have meaningful training. “We have a sense of what can work… [But] we don’t yet have solid evaluations of each of these things. Certainly not of them as a total package.”

As with all research, money is a factor. “Nobody funds research,” Futures Without Violence’s Seabrook observed. Social scientists “don’t have the resources to do that kind of work,” she said, noting that the EEOC has no research arm and is historically a low-priority department for administrations. Still, she explained, legislation will soon be introduced in Congress to fund research into all types of workplace harassment.

Feldblum agreed and noted another challenge: “We’ve always had two issues: one was get the funding, two was get the subject of the research (the employer) to say yes” to research into their workplace. Unless an employer is willing to let researchers examine the climate of a workplace before and after trainings and other interventions, there is no way to really know if they worked.

Legally, companies could be held liable for holding trainings they know are ineffective, creating a disincentive. But Frye says “it’s better to know your problems than to feign ignorance.”

According to Sepler, a lot of researchers would be “delighted” to do those kinds of examinations if they had the funding. “What if they evaluate a training model and and it shows it is ineffective?” she asked rhetorically. Despite the desire for evidence of results, “no one wants to be the organization where there is data [proving] you’ve been doing something demonstrably ineffective.”

Vicki Magley, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, is one of the few people who has studied which interventions actually succeed at reducing harassment. She observed that most of the assessment of training is done by the vendors themselves — and it is less-than-rigorous data. “I’ve talked to many, many training companies over the past few months who want to tell me all the wonderful things they’re doing with their training. They don’t sound terrible…” she said. “But when I ask, ‘how do you evaluate whether this is doing anything?’, they have no answer.”

“You can ask trainees at the end of a training how well they liked the training, with smiley faces. That doesn’t tell you anything about attitude change, culture change, perceived risk [for reporting harassment],” she said. Instead of a rigorous before/after assessment, participants are mostly asked if the experience was helpful and if the free cookies served were fresh. That sends the message to employees that the company doesn’t take such trainings seriously.

In her own research efforts, she has encountered strong resistance to that sort of before and after study. Recently, she recounted, one organization hired her to evaluate a training but refused to let her evaluate efficacy. “I was being asked to come in and evaluate a training. I was told I couldn’t really evaluate it in the way that was going to be useful because ‘it was going to end up costing too much money and that would just be too expensive.’” With her university bearing the brunt of the costs, she said, she knew “at the end of the day, they just didn’t want to know.”

Magley also noted that many companies use online trainings which are even less evidence-based and can easily be completed by employees with “half an eye and half a heart.”

“If there’s a dearth [of research] on sexual harassment training, there is almost zilch on online training,” she says. “We really don’t know if it does anything.”

A roadmap for employers

Still, state and local lawmakers continue to pass laws making harassment training mandatory, without really taking into account whether it helps. Often these laws require that medium and large employers provide lengthy explanations about the letter of the sexual harassment law. In turn, this increases the incentives for training companies to remain ignorant about whether their in-person or virtual trainings are useful.

Robin Shea, a partner at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete who tracks state harassment training laws, said in an email that New York State and New York City were the most recent major jurisdictions to enact mandatory training for all major employers. When they go into effect in the upcoming months, New York will join California, Connecticut, Maine, and possibly additional states. “I do expect mandatory harassment training laws to be a hot legislative topic this year and in 2019 because of the #MeToo movement,” she predicted. Earlier this year, Connecticut’s senate, in a bipartisan vote, moved to expand the required two-hour training to employers with at least 20 employees (instead of 50) — though that bill died in the state’s house due to controversy around some other provisions.

But how to actually improve the problem? Feldblum said the EEOC task force report — a series of non-binding recommendations — is a “road map for employers to take.” It recommends an array of steps including greater accountability, new and different approaches to training, and more effective reporting systems.

Among the ideas in the report is a proposal that when employers accused of harassment enter into settlement agreements with the commission, they include requirements that researchers be allowed to work with the employer to assess climate and harassment levels before and after implementations of compliance trainings, civility trainings, and bystander intervention trainings.

So far, she has not seen a huge number of takers. “Even if we find an employer who is willing, we still have to fund it,” she said.

The University of Connecticut’s Magley thinks ultimately the solution may have to come from the judiciary. “Courts need to say, ‘You can do training, that’s a fine thing to do, but if you do that, you need to document that it is effective, that it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing.’” By requiring that for legal liability protections, organizations would be “held accountable to truly effectively change structures,” rather than “do whatever they can, as cheaply as possible, to check the box.”

With the Trump administration working to pack the federal courts with Clarence Thomases and Sam Alitos who side with businesses over workers in case after case, that shift may not be quick.

“Legal change is a slow-moving train,” she acknowledged, but “hope rests on the shoulders of current law students actively reading this literature and law professors who are training that that type of thinking can start to permeate and change the culture.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 25, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Josh Israel has been senior investigative reporter for ThinkProgress since 2012. Previously, he was a reporter and oversaw money-in-politics reporting at the Center for Public Integrity, was chief researcher for Nick Kotz’s acclaimed 2005 book Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America, and was president of the Virginia Partisans Gay & Lesbian Democratic Club. A New England native, Josh received a B.A. in politics from Brandeis University and graduated from the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, in 2004. He has appeared on cable news and many radio shows across the country.

Senators are letting themselves off the hook with sexual harassment bill, women's rights groups say

Friday, May 25th, 2018

Sexual harassment in Congress is a scandal—and it would probably be a lot more of one if Congress hadn’t written its own rules for dealing with allegations in secret. But since the #MeToo movement has shined a light on sexual harassment, the House of Representatives has managed to pass a decent bill. The Senate … hasn’t, and the bill it has coming up for a vote is not the answer. The American Civil Liberties Union, Equal Pay Today, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Women’s Law Center, and Public Citizen are calling on the Senate to strengthen its bill.

Their letter points to serious weaknesses in the Senate bill, including that it doesn’t call for an independent investigator, instead putting approval of settlements in the hands of the ethics committees of both the House and the Senate to sign off on if the settlement is because of a member of Congress’s own actions:

“This provision appears to provide an opportunity for a Member who has settled a claim to avoid personal accountability and to be absolved from reimbursing the taxpayers,” the groups wrote in the letter.

Additionally, the Senate bill fails to hold members liable for discrimination settlements:

“A Member who has committed wrongdoing should be liable for all damages negotiated in a settlement or awarded by a court; they should not be shielded from the consequences of their actions,” they wrote.

Seriously. Time for Congress to be held accountable—and the way for that to happen is for Congress to write its own rules to demand accountability.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on May 25, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

New Survey Shows Sexual Harassment a Pervasive Problem for Flight Attendants

Friday, May 11th, 2018

AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson discussed the scope of the problem:

While much of the coverage of the #MeToo movement has focused on high-profile cases in the entertainment industry and politics, this survey underscores why AFA has long been pushing to eradicate sexism and harassment within our own industry. The time when flight attendants were objectified in airline marketing and people joked about ‘coffee, tea, or me’ needs to be permanently grounded. #TimesUp for the industry to put an end to its sexist past.

Nelson noted that the problems associated with the harassment go beyond the harm caused to the flight attendants:

Flight attendants are first responders. Their authority when responding to emergencies is undermined when they are belittled and harassed. Likewise, harassment makes it more difficult for flight attendants to intervene when passengers are harassed by other passengers. Flight attendants must be confident that airline executives will back them up when they respond to and report harassment of crew and passengers.

Here are some of the key facts uncovered by the survey:

  • 68% of flight attendants have experienced sexual harassment during their flying careers.
  • 35% experienced verbal sexual harassment from passengers in the past year. 
  • Of those who have experienced verbal sexual harassment in the past year, 68% faced it three or more times, and one-third five or more times.
  • Flight attendants describe the verbal sexual harassment as comments that are “nasty, unwanted, lewd, crude, inappropriate, uncomfortable, sexual, suggestive and dirty.” They also report being subjected to passengers’ explicit sexual fantasies, propositions, request for sexual “favors” and pornographic videos and pictures.
  • 18% experienced physical sexual harassment from passengers in the past year. 
  • Of those who experienced physical sexual harassment in the past year, more than 40% of those suffered physical abuse three or more times.
  • Flight attendants said the physical sexual harassment included having their breasts, buttocks and crotch area “touched, felt, pulled, grabbed, groped, slapped, rubbed and fondled” both on top of and under their uniforms. Other abuse included passengers cornering or lunging at them followed by unwanted hugs, kisses and humping.
  • Only 7% of the flight attendants who experienced sexual harassment reported it to their employer. 
  • 68% of flight attendants say they haven’t noticed any employer efforts over the past year to address sexual harassment at work. According to AFA-CWA, airlines Alaska, United and Spirit have led the industry in addressing this issue.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 11, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

Women of color face barriers in sexual harassment claims

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

Women of color are more likely to experience sexual harassment, yet less likely to report it.

The dynamic is true across all sectors, including state and federal government jobs. The increased awareness and sympathy in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp doesn’t always translate when the victim of sexual harassment is a minority woman.

What needs to change to make it safe and viable for women of color to report harassment?

Minority women are still leery of coming forward

Numerous surveys and studies indicate women of color experience sexual harassment at a higher rate than white women. This is especially true in low-wage occupations such as food service and housekeeping. So why don’t formal harassment complaints reflect this?

  • Women of color are both fetishized and marginalized, making them frequent targets for harassment. This is especially true if they are isolated in the workplace. I’m the only non-white woman in my whole department. They worry that co-workers or supervisors will not back them up.
  • Dominant culture stereotypes can inhibit investigation of workplace harassment. Asian women are submissive. Black women are dramatic. Latinas are hotheads. Such preconceptions can skew how sexual harassment complaints are perceived and processed by management or HR.
  • Cultural norms also influence women from minority communities, including what they consider harassment and whether to report it. We don’t snitch on our own. You should take it as a compliment. Our people don’t rock the boat. No one will take a black woman seriously.

These external and internal messages get in the way of holding harassers accountable. Instead of focusing on the sexual harassment, the victim is more likely to be doubted or “handled” if she is a woman of color.

More to lose, less to gain

Women from racial and ethnic minorities are already at a disadvantage when it comes to hiring and advancement. Like all women, they have to weigh the risks and rewards when deciding whether to blow the whistle on harassment. But women of color are less likely to be believed and supported, even within the current environment to expose sexual harassment. According to The Alliance, for every black woman who reports a sexual assault, there are 15 black victims who don’t even bother to go to police.

Women of color are also more likely to suffer retaliation after reporting sexual harassment – transfers, poor performance reviews, denial of security clearance, or even termination. And so the self-dialogue becomes how much harassment they are willing to put up with.

You do not have to fight this battle alone.

The inequality won’t change overnight, but the needle is moving in the right direction. Women of color do have legal recourse to stop workplace sexual harassment and pursue civil damages. An employment law attorney can help document the harassing behavior, identify allies (or reluctant witnesses) and initiate a formal sexual harassment complaint through the EEOC or other channels.

This blog was originally published at Passman & Kaplan on May 4, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness.  The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president under investigation for sexual harassment

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018

John Bailey, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is under investigation for allegations of sexual harassment, according to an exclusive Variety report published Friday. A probe into the academy president’s alleged misconduct was immediately opened after the academy received three claims of sexual harassment against Bailey.

In a painful twist of irony, Bailey’s tenure has been marked by the #MeToo movement, which forever changed the way the academy approaches misconduct by its members, almost using membership as a tool to punish those accused of sexual assault and/or harassment.

Just 10 days after The New York Times published its bombshell report on film producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual assault and harassment, the academy voted to expel him from the organization. In spite of this, however, many prominent actors themselves accused of sexual harassment or assault — such as Casey Affleck, Bill Cosby, and Roman Polanski — remain members of the academy.

In January, the academy proposed a new standards of conduct as part of the organization’s attempt to respond to the sexual harassment and assault scandals.

“The Academy’s goal is not to be an investigative body, but rather ensure that when a grievance is made, it will go through a fair and methodical process,” CEO Dawn Hudson said in an email sent to members.

The standards outlined how the academy will approach sexual misconduct allegations going forward. According to a document sent to members, individuals will be able to report misconduct through an online form the academy plans to launch in the summer of 2018, or by phone to the academy’s membership department. The allegations must be substantiated by evidence, and will be subject to a review by the academy’s membership committee. If the allegations are deemed serious enough, the committee may refer the issue to the board of governors, which can then vote to suspend or expel a member.

But Bailey’s alleged actions put the academy in the precarious position of choosing how to handle potential misconduct at the organization’s highest level. Should the academy choose to let Bailey go, Lois Burwell, a veteran makeup artist, will fill the role until the next election in July.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebekah Entralgo is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Previously she was a news assistant on the NPR Business Desk. She has also worked for NPR member stations WFSU in Tallahassee and WLRN in Miami.

Wendy’s refuses to join program protecting farm workers from sexual abuse

Monday, March 19th, 2018

When Silvia Perez came to Immokalee, Florida from Guatemala in 1993, there was one profession that made sense: working in the fields.

“Tomato-picking is the biggest industry in Florida, and you find out about it right when you arrive,” she said. “It’s bigger than textiles or the restaurant business.”

Perez got a job on a farm in Immokalee, where she was one of five women on a farm saturated with men; she made friends with two other women at work and they stuck together. Before long, their male supervisor began following them around while they worked. One day, he compared the tightness of their clothing and encouraged Perez to wear tighter shirts and more fashionable clothes.

Perez dealt with it. With two kids to feed and minimal fluency in English, she felt that tomato picking was the best option for her in her new home.

Then, in 2008, her supervisor touched her breasts.

“He asked me if they are real or fake,” she recalled. “I was so angry.”

She remembered the incident as she protested on the streets of New York City for the past five days in support of worker protections.

Worker protections, for Perez, are more than a lofty ideal; they are actively enforced by the Fair Food Program (FFP), launched by the Coalition of Immolakee Workers(CIW) in 2011. The FFP creates a partnership between farm workers, Florida tomato growers, and participating retail buyers to enforce fair wages, worker safety, and other basic protections for farm workers through a three-pronged model: it includes worker-to-worker education sessions about worker rights that are held on the farm and on the clock, it adds a premium to the price of tomatoes that becomes a direct bonus for the tomato pickers, and it enlists the help of the third-party Fair Food Standards Council, which conducts regular audits and carries out ongoing complaint investigation and resolution.

Fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, KFC, and Chipotle have all signed on to the FFP, which means they only purchase their vegetables from farms with these protections. But Wendy’s refuses to participate. That’s what brought Perez to New York, to join the CIW in their fast and protest against the fast food chain’s refusal to join.

On Thursday, outside the Manhattan hedge fund offices of Nelson Peltz, Wendy’s largest shareholder and chair of its Board of Directors, Perez made her voice heard.

“I am here as a mother to break the silence and to end the abuse that exists where Wendy’s buys their tomatoes,” Perez said. “We’re demonstrating and we’re being joined by students, by thousands of people. And they’re on our side. They’re listening to us. They come, they show up. We hope that Wendy’s will listen. If not, we will keep showing up.”

Denying dignity to farm workers

When Perez first faced sexual assault at work, she didn’t have many options. There was no union to report to, and, throughout the 2000s, workers’ rights in Florida were quickly disappearing as then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R) dismantled the state’s Department of Labor.

Her experience was nothing new. Farm workers in the United States have long faced sexual abuse, rape, and harassment in the fields — a problem exacerbated by the fact that many of the workers are undocumented immigrants who are more easily taken advantage of by individuals in power.

So, Perez continued to put up with it. Until 2008, when she heard about a solution in the form of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grassroots organization launched in 1993 that advocates for worker justice through community organizing. In 2011, CIW started the Fair Food Program.

From the fields, Perez noticed improvements as corporations started signing onto the FFP. Water, bathrooms, and shade became available to her and her colleagues. Her pay increased. There was a system to report problems, including a 24-hour hotline that she and other pickers could call from anywhere. For the first time, she felt like she had a voice at work.

“If someone on the field had a headache, they could actually ask for a break,” Perez told ThinkProgress.

To those who have never worked in the fields, these changes may seem minor. However, they’re important enough that Perez worries about farm workers who aren’t protected by the FFP. She’s heard stories from pickers who have witnessed sexual abuse and wage theft on non-FFP-protected farms. She was horrified to read a 2014 Los Angeles Times exposé of human trafficking circles run on the Bioparques de Occidente farm in Mexico.

Perez and the rest of the CIW said their dignity should be at the center of Wendy’s transactions.

Laura Espinoza, director of the Fair Food Standards Council, the third-party organization that oversees the FFP, agreed. She called the FFP an all-around beneficial situation: buyers get transparency from their supply chain, growers oversee safe, secure workplaces, turnover among workers on farms decreases, and tomato pickers like Perez are safe at their jobs.

Wendy’s isn’t alone. Although the FFP has seen growth — since 2011, it’s expanded to include seven states, three crops, and continues to get support from the fast food industry — there’s been a steady increase in U.S. buyers sourcing tomatoes from Mexico, said Jennifer Bond, an agricultural economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It’s problematic, as the success of the FFP hinges on buyers joining. With a surplus of farms that provide cheaper — and perhaps, as Wendy’s claims, riper — tomatoes, there is a strong financial incentive for companies like Wendy’s not to sign on to an agreement that promotes human rights.

“We at the Council are able to stop abuses because we go out to the farms and say, ‘If this doesn’t stop, you will not be able to sell your produce to our participating buyers.’ That’s what Wendy’s is denying to farm workers,” Espinoza said.

She cited a 2017 lawsuit in which a female farm worker at Favorite Farms in Tampa, Florida was sexually harassed and raped by her supervisor. When she reported the incidents, she was suspended, then fired. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the farm and won the lawsuit, but Espinoza said that didn’t provide enough long-term protection for the workers on that farm.

“With the FFP, if a farm worker or grower is found guilty of sexual assault or retaliation, they are banned from all FFP-participating farms,” she said. “But that individual can work at Wendy’s. Because they’re not enforcing these basic human rights.”

“We are here to be heard”

By sunset on Thursday evening, the dozens of Immokalee workers in New York were joined by thousands of marchers. Native New Yorkers, faith leaders, workers from outside of Florida, and students on spring break from as far as Indiana proceeded in front of Peltz’s building chanting, drumming, and carrying signs urging onlookers to boycott Wendy’s, to support human rights, and to buy fair food. It was day five of the protest, and the marchers were energized as they made their way from Park Avenue to a park opposite the United Nations where the air boomed with the voices of five women on a makeshift stage who were rapping about rights and being American.

For Perez, it was gratifying to be surrounded with such a show of support. Now, she hopes that Wendy’s will finally agree to prioritize the rights of pickers like her.

“Wendy’s is supporting the problem. They buy tomatoes where respect doesn’t exist, where there are no rights for workers,” Perez said amid the noise. “Wendy’s says that tomatoes are more fresh, more delicious. But they don’t know about the life of the workers. We are here to be heard.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Gina Ciliberto is a writer based in New York City. She covers social justice issues for the Dominican Sisters of Hope, among others.

Women in male-dominated workplaces more likely to be mistreated

Friday, March 16th, 2018

Nearly half of American women work in places where they outnumber the men. But for millions of other women, employment in a male-dominated workplace can be stressful, dangerous and harmful to their careers.

A Pew Research Center survey confirmed that women in majority-male workplaces are more likely to experience gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The mistreatment is often worst in traditionally male jobs and workplaces without women in positions of authority.

Gender ratios are linked to gender discrimination

The Pew Research survey was conducted in 2017 before the #MeToo movement put a national spotlight on sexual harassment. The research gave credence to a known phenomenon:

  • Sex discrimination – In majority-male workplaces, women were more likely to say they (a) are paid less than men, (b) are treated as not competent, (c) received less support from leadership than their male counterparts, and (d) suffered small but repeated slights based on their gender.
  • Sexual harassment – Women in majority-male workplaces were more likely to say that they had personally been sexually harassed (28 percent). Harassment occurs even in female-dominated occupations, but both men and women said it was less of a problem in those work settings.

Fire station lawsuit is “Exhibit A” of boys’ club mentality

The Justice Department has filed a discrimination lawsuit against the City of Houston. The suit alleges years of egregious harassment against three female firefighters – the only female firefighters – who worked at Houston’s Station 54 firehouse. The lawsuit describes male firefighters behaving badly in a concerted campaign: Racial epithets. Death threats. Ostracizing. Juvenile pranks. Mocking a woman’s dead daughter. And literally marking their territory in the women’s dorm – urinating on toilet seats, urinating on the carpet and defecating in the women’s toilet after covering up the flushing sensor.

It’s definitely a guy thing

While the misconduct alleged at Station 54 is over the top, it fits a pattern. Gender discrimination, a hostile work environment and sexual harassment are often worst in traditionally male occupations: firefighting, dock work, auto repair, law enforcement, computer programming, engineering, construction and landscaping, to name a few. The higher the ratio of men, the more pervasive or brazen the misconduct is likely to be.

The Pew survey noted that women in male-dominated workplaces do not differ much from women in gender-balanced or majority-female workplaces. They have similar demographics as far as age, education, race and ethnicity. The variable is male attitudes toward their female co-workers and subordinates. Many men in majority-male fields view women not as equals but intruders. Management sets a poor example or downplays complaints.

In the #MeToo era, fewer women are willing to put up with the status quo.

This blog was originally published at Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law on March 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness.  The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.

So you think tipping ensures good service? No, but it does enable sexual harassment

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

People who work in restaurants will tell you: tips say more about customers than about the service they get. All those people who say that tips are a way to reward good service and punish bad service? Sorry, but that’s not how it works in practice every day in restaurants across the country. Instead, tips are all too often used as weapons to force women to accept sexual harassment. A few of those women detailed their worst experiences for the New York Times:

There was the young server at a burger joint in Georgia, Emmallie Heard, whose customer held her tip money in his hand and said, “So you gonna give me your number?” She wrote it down, but changed one of the digits.

There was the waitress in Portland, Ore., Whitney Edmunds, who swallowed her anger when a man patted his lap and beckoned her to sit, saying, “I’m a great tipper.”

And at a steakhouse in Gonzales, La., Jaime Brittain stammered and walked away when a group of men offered a $30 tip if she’d answer a question about her pubic hair. She returned and provided a “snappy answer” that earned her the tip, but acknowledges having mixed feelings about the episode.

If you don’t believe restaurant workers when they say that tips aren’t about good service, the research agrees with them—and shows that tipping promotes racial inequality:

… good service does not motivate tipping decisions as much as people think, said Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Cornell, who has spent years studying why we tip.

“The evidence just isn’t there that the desire to reward good service is driving most tipping decisions,” he said.

Instead, Professor Lynn said, customers are more likely to tip waitresses who are large-breasted, slender and blond, according to research he published in 2009. White servers are tipped more than people of color, according to his research.

And when tipped workers are paid a subminimum wage of $2.13 an hour—which has been the federal level for more than two decades—it only increases their dependence on tips.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on March 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

Ready to fight sexual harassment? Call Tina Tchen.

Friday, March 9th, 2018

The Grammys had a sexism problem.

Perhaps you’ve heard: That only one woman, Alessia Cara, won a televised award at this year’s ceremony; that the only female nominee for album of the year, Lorde, was not offered a solo performance slot, even though all her fellow male nominees were; that sexual harassment and violence were as inescapable in the music industry as an earworm from which even the biggest pop stars on the planet were not immune; that the numbers were in, and the numbers were damning, making self-evident the truth that had been lurking all this time by revealing that women comprise just 12 percent of the total music creator population.

At first, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow said that women who want to win more Grammys — as if the golden trophies at the end of the misogyny rainbow were, alone, the issue at hand — could solve this problem all by themselves if they were just willing to “step up.” Amid calls for his resignation, Portnow slid back from his comments, and after his apologies were made, he announced the creation of an independent task force “to review every aspect of what we do as an organization and identify where we can do more to overcome the explicit barriers and unconscious biases that impede female advancement in the music community.”

And then he called Tina Tchen.

Because if you are really ready to reckon with the sexism in your industry — that is to say, you realize it’s not merely some minor inconvenience but rather a systemic, rampant, seemingly incontrovertible crisis — then that is what you do.

Tchen is who Hollywood turned to when, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations and its aftershocks, it was well past time to get organized and act. Tchen is a co-founder of Time’s Up, the formal Hollywood initiative to combat sexual harassment and assault within and outside the entertainment industry, which launched on New Year’s Day. She’s leading the legal defense fund, which provides subsidized legal and PR support to those who have experienced sexual harassment or violence in the workplace.

She is the attorney corporations employ when they are ready to do more than the perfunctory sexual harassment trainings, when they realize that sexism has crossed a line — namely, the bottom line, because a company that cannot attract and retain women is one that cannot complete in a global marketplace — and want to change.

Tchen was Michelle Obama’s chief of staff and, before that, an assistant to President Barack Obama. (Tchen affectionately refers to the former FLOTUS as her “forever boss.” No offense, 44.) She spent a couple years as the director of the White House Office on Public Engagement, then worked with the president to create the White House Council on Women and Girls, on which she served as executive director. And all of that followed a 23-year legal career in which she rose through the ranks to become a partner in corporate litigation at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the firm she joined after she graduated from Northwestern Law School and went to undergrad at some school outside Boston.

What might appear at first glance to be a bug in a resume longer than a CVS receipt (zero experience in the music industry) is, according to Portnow, a feature: “The fact that she lacks business ties to the music industry ensures her objectivity as chair,” he said in a statement. “In this moment, the Recording Academy can do more than reflect what currently exists; we can help lead the industry into becoming the inclusive music community we want it to be -— a responsibility that the board and I take seriously. Tina Tchen is an accomplished advocate for women and an impact-oriented leader versed in convening disparate stakeholders for a common purpose.”

A week before the Recording Academy announced Tchen’s appointment, Tchen met with ThinkProgress to talk about her work with the Time’s Up legal defense fund and combatting institutionalized sexism, something she has been doing all her life. Literally, all her life: When she was born, her father, who immigrated to the United States from China with Tchen’s mother, was in denial that he didn’t get the son he’d hoped for and insisted Tchen was a boy for days. (He came around.)

We spoke at the Washington D.C. outpost of her new firm, Buckley Sandler, in the World Wildlife Fund building, a few floors above President Obama’s post-White House office. Arriving especially polished for an ordinary Tuesday afternoon — “I did a little CNN on Time’s Up earlier today,” she explained, laughing. “That’s why I have CNN hair and makeup.” — Tchen dug into how the Time’s Up legal defense fund will work, what tackling workplace sexual harassment at work really entails, and why, in spite of everything, she does not think the solution is to burn it all down. As she sees it, this very moment “is probably the best opportunity we’ve had in generations to make these changes.”

I want to start with the latest data, that you’ve heard from over 1000 people–

1600.

And you’ve raised over $20 million. I’d like to talk through that because it seems both incredible and like a logistical challenge.

Right. Logistical challenge! (laughs) We knew once we launched on January 1st that there would be calls. But I’m not sure we realized how big a volume and across how many industries. The amazing thing about the 1600 requests is they cover, like, 60 different industries. From construction to police officers to hotel workers to government employees. So it really does validate something many of us have thought for a long time: This is very pervasive, and unreported, and it doesn’t know any boundaries in terms of geography or age or even gender or industry. That’s proving to be the case.

“Sexual harassment is the symptom at the end of the road, and the road starts with: What do our workplaces really look like?”

So we’ve done several things, knowing there would be a lot of volume. The National Women’s Law Center, which is the home of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, is staffing up. So there will be dedicated staff. In the meantime, my law firm, Buckley Sanders, and several others, have been sending lawyers over there to help answer the phones and help do the screenings, so that we have the capacity. Because we knew we wanted to answer the requests as they were coming in. So of the 1600 requests, over 1,000 have already got information about lawyers they can call, and they’re in the process of getting representation.

So you’re essentially the field office and ultimately their cases are handled locally?

It’s more than that. We’re really a clearinghouse. We’re a place centrally that people can call if they need help. We’re a place centrally where attorneys can volunteer to take cases, either at a pro bono or reduced fee. And we serve as the clearinghouse as somebody calls for help, figuring out, who are the three or four lawyers in that geography who we can give that client that information?

One of our base principles is, we want the clients to always be able to make their own decisions and be empowered to do that. So the client and the lawyer make their own decision, at the end of the day, of whether they’re going to actually work together to pursue the case, or sometimes people just need advice as to whether they even have a claim or not. Sadly, for a lot of people because of statutes of limitations which are so short, they might not actually have a claim, but they need to have someone walk them through that so they can figure out what their rights are.

How do you determine — is there some kind of hierarchy of who gets the resources that you have and the money that you have? Because there’s a lot of it, but it’s not this bottomless well.

No, and anyone who knows about legal bills, even $21 million isn’t going to go far when you’ve got thousands of cases out there. So one thing is, we’re continuing to fundraise. $21 million is not the cap by any means. The GoFundMe page is still going strong.

“There are still lots of ways to mentor, to be friendly — I mean, I’m a hugger in the office and I still hug lots of people! — without abusing the relationship that you have as the person who controls their career, and their job, and their work environment.”

We’re developing criteria for funding. Of all of the cases that have come in so far have been accepted and linked with lawyers, not all of those cases will necessarily get funded, because we don’t have enough funding for every case. So the NWLC has been working on criteria for how to prioritize cases — how to divide up the money. How much is fair to give per case. This really hasn’t been done before at this scale, so it’s not like we had a lot of examples to work on. But they’re doing a very thoughtful process of developing those criteria.

The closest thing that I can think of is when, after a natural disaster, the Red Cross gets all this money and they have to decide how to divvy it up among people. Do you feel like you then end up in the business of quantifying how bad someone’s experience was?

No, I suppose for a hurricane you might! But here, it will be more around, probably, kinds of activities. We’ll set an amount for, if you’re investigating a case you can get up to this amount. [All the lawyers] are going to have to do it for a reduced fee. We need a very, very discounted fee in order to make sure there’s enough money to go around. And this is a charitable enterprise; no one is in this to make money.

So it’ll probably be by different activity stages of cases: For investigation, a cap up to this amount, for pre-trial discovery. It probably breaks up more like that. It’s not really up to us to decide the specific severity of the cases, and in fact, we can’t really get in that business because a lot of the information to evaluate cases should be privileged. The Legal Defense Fund is not the lawyer for these clients. We’re helping link them up with a lawyer. But how they decide to prosecute the case, and how weak or strong the case is, is really up to the client and his or her lawyer.

Obviously you came to this with so much knowledge already about the scale of sexual harassment and violence in this country. I’m curious what, if anything, has been surprising to you about the emails or calls you’ve been receiving, the responses you’ve been getting?

I think we’ve all been — we’re all still surprised by the breadth. We intellectually knew: We think it’s everywhere. But the idea that we have over 60 different industries among the 1600 folks who’ve called in the first month and a half, that surprised us.

I am not an employment lawyer so I don’t do this every day, so I was surprised, knowing what I do know — which is that we have Title VII, and happily we’ve had Title VII protections under employment law for going on three decades, and it provides for recovery of attorney’s fees when you win the case — so I actually, foolishly thought a lot of these cases already had lawyers, but that people who were speaking out and were getting sued for defamation didn’t have lawyers. I thought we’d have more of those cases.

And we do have a lot of those cases, where people who are speaking out — even though their cases were a long time ago — against people who are rich and powerful who have the resources to sue them, they’re on the defense side, and those cases don’t generate any fees.

“It’s a little bit like bringing your work home: Bringing the outside gladiator that you have to be into the workplace when you’re actually people’s bosses, not their opponent.”

But I am surprised at the number of cases, for example, of low-income women who have been unable to find a lawyer, even though there is the potential for recovery of attorney’s fees at the end, because they don’t make enough and therefore, the recovery’s not very big, so it would be spending a lot of time for not a lot of money. I was surprised at how many people who are out there, who have sexual harassment claims, who still can’t find a lawyer. And of course, we always knew that Title VII doesn’t cover small employers. There are lots of categories of kinds of workers who aren’t covered by those kinds of protections.

One of the things that’s been frustrating to see unfold in the reactions to movements like Time’s Up is this, “Well, I guess you can’t date at the office anymore! I guess you can’t flirt with your waitress anymore!” How do you react to that and respond to that? 

We are all worried also, by the backlash. It’s “don’t flirt with your waitress” and it’s “don’t take a female associate on a business trip.”

Right: Don’t mentor young women, Mike Pence rules at dinner.

And what I say is, that’s completely, obviously, the wrong reaction to this. The issues here aren’t about mentoring folks or relationships. Some of this is kind of easy! This is workplaces and how you should behave in a workplace, and the way you behave in a workplace is different from how you behave in a social setting. And that, when you’re the boss, you are always the boss. And you have a power relationship with the people who work for you, and you have to treat them appropriately and with respect.

There are still lots of ways to mentor, to be friendly — I mean, I’m a hugger in the office and I still hug lots of people! — without abusing the relationship that you have as the person who controls their career, and their job, and their work environment. So I think the lines are not that hard to find. But we do have to talk about it more. I think the problem that we’ve had is we don’t talk about it enough to make sure people understand the distinction, and we haven’t allowed people to also voice when they’re uncomfortable so that people can understand. Most people, if you say you’re uncomfortable, they’ll respect that. But we haven’t had a culture where it’s been okay to say, “Well, that doesn’t make me comfortable.”

It also seems that in some of these industries, especially creative industries — I think about somebody like Harvey Weinstein. There’s this pairing of, you get to be a jerk if you’re effective, if you’re a creative genius. Or that those two things are linked in some way: That the kind of outlandish, violent behavior is somehow connected to being an effective boss. You of course have worked for the Obamas. I can’t imagine that working for first lady Michelle Obama involved her belittling her employees in any way.

Right, right.

Why do you think that myth persists?

I did 23 years at a big law firm. I’ve had clients who were some of the biggest companies in the country. And I do think — not the Harvey Weinstein, the most egregious sexual assaults that are involved there, but I do think when you talk about things like verbal abuse and bullying that happens in the workplace, that’s not uncommon. And it’s often tied to, “That’s what you have to do to succeed in the workplace externally.”

If you’re in a pretty competitive industry — you’re a salesperson having to sell a lot against competitors — there are a lot of professions, like my profession, I have to go fight it out in court with people for my clients. That’s what my clients expect. That’s what I know I should be doing to be successful for my clients. But, in a lot of times, I think what happens — and again, we haven’t talked about it enough — is that toughness that you have to succeed at external, to your own workplace, gets translated to how you’re behaving in your office.

It’s a little bit like bringing your work home: Bringing the outside gladiator that you have to be into the workplace when you’re actually people’s bosses, not their opponent. And a lot of times we don’t train people well enough to be bosses, and how to manage people, and a good manager doesn’t manage the folks who are working for them in the same way I would approach an opposing counsel in a case. So we need to learn some of that behavior: How to manage differently, how to mentor differently, and how to be successful in very tough, competitive situations, in a way that doesn’t bring that tough competitiveness back to your own workplace.

I hesitate to give President Trump any credit for this moment that we’re experiencing right now. But it does feel like, as a culture, there are enough people who are angry enough that something like Time’s Up is even happening at all, and that we’re still talking about something that was sparked by a news story that broke in October in what might be the most headline-competitive environment we’ve ever had. I’m curious what you think is fueling that continued attention and passion on the part of the general public.

Here’s who I think we have to credit for a lot of that, and that, quite frankly, is the really brave individuals who are coming forward. And they’re still coming forward at some personal risk, and I think what we’ve not seen in past circumstances when this happened is that volume of outpouring of people feeling empowered to also talk about what happened to them. Those stories, and the proliferation of them, and the wide diversity of stories and the wide diversity of workplace situations, has, I think, kept it going. Because there’s a different industry and work situation with every news cycle. A lot of credit has to go to those folks.

“Nobody knew who Anita Hill was before she started testifying, and many people still, to this day, don’t know who she is. Millions of people know who these women in Hollywood are.”

And I do think the fact that it started with the women in Hollywood, who are very familiar people. In the past, people who would speak out, people didn’t really know or recognize or relate to. Nobody knew who Anita Hill was before she started testifying, and many people still, to this day, don’t know who she is. Millions of people know who these women in Hollywood are. I give them a lot of credit for being willing to use their celebrity, and to continue to use their celebrity, with each passing moment as they continue to speak out, to keep this issue in the forefront. I think that has been contributing a lot. Because people see them on their televisions at night, and see them in the movie theater. They relate to them — they feel like they have a relationship with some of these actresses. And that, I think, has really made people tune into this issue in a way that they haven’t tuned in before when the people making the allegations, which were also horrific, were not people that they knew or thought they knew.

It does feel, too, like people — in ways good and bad — are just closer to the edge than we were two years ago.

Here’s the other thing: Social media, we forget that it’s become such a fabric of our lives. We forget what it was like to spread news around or tell personal stories in a way that got the attention of folks. Before social media, there wasn’t really a vehicle for it. When Anita Hill was testifying 26 years ago, even if somebody had wanted to do Me Too then, there was no platform in which the average person who did identify with her could give voice to that in a meaningful way. (Editor’s note: Tarana Burke founded the Me Too movement in 1997.

We’re in an age right now, also, where that ability for people to see something that affects them personally, and also join in and speak out publicly about it, to have that seen by thousands of people very quickly, it gives a great power to all of these social change movements.

As much as you’re seeing that the volume of this conversation is so huge, as you say, and more people are participating in it than ever before, is there anything that you think is not being talked about in this arena that should be? Or is there anything you think is being misunderstood?

I want to always make sure that, when we talk about sexual harassment, we can’t just focus on sexual harassment itself. Sexual harassment is the symptom at the end of the road, and the road starts with: What do our workplaces really look like? To really combat sexual harassment, it’s not just: Fix our policies, do some training, and discipline some folks. It is really: Build workplaces that are more truly diverse and where everyone is treated with respect and feels safe. And that is all about addressing core structural issues around how we organize work.

That’s something I’ve been talking about since I was in the White House, with our Summit on Working Families. (Disclosure: The White House Summit on Working Families was co-hosted by the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent site housed at the Center for American Progress.) It’s something I’m building a practice here at Buckley Sandler around, which is helping companies build workplace cultures that are more supportive.

Because that’s really how you’re going to solve the problem of sexual harassment, is if you have true diversity in the workforce with women and people of color in leadership as well as in other levels within the company, that you have a workplace culture and a set of conduct that is acceptable that you set by the tone at the top, by the corporation’s heads, that say: This is the kind of company we want to be, this is the kind of workplace we want to have.

Taking those steps will not only, I think, reduce incidences of sexual harassment or, when they occur, we’ll have systems in place that respond to them appropriately. It also will benefit companies. We’ve seen plenty of the data that shows that companies that are more diverse have better returns on investment, they make better decisions, they have lower costs of turnover from their staff. And we now also see — what the current news stories are showing us — the risks to the entire enterprise if you don’t address these issues appropriately. Because you will have the problems that we’re seeing now and they can lead to real damage to your business model and to your company.

What I do hope we can get to is talking about these broader workplace issues as well, and not just the sexual harassment part. Because it doesn’t happen in isolation.

I have a feeling, given your work, that your answer to this question will be no. But because I sometimes feel this way, I want to know if you do, too: When you look at the scope of this problem and you think, okay, to deal with gender discrimination at work, we’re going to have to deal with gender discrimination all over, because we can’t suddenly expect people to skip into their cubicle and be better there than we are everywhere else — do you ever just feel like, we have to burn it all down?

Well, no. (laughs) Maybe it’s our age difference! But no. No, because I’ve seen how things can change. I know so many companies that have gotten better, that have set real different tones, that are in the process of seeing real diversity come through in their senior levels.

“Women are now 50 percent of the workforce. They graduate at a rate that’s 20 percent higher than men, in the United States. So if you want the most talented workers, you need to have a workplace that’s going to attract women as workers.”

I also really believe that the world economic system, and the global economy, and competitiveness, and the demography of workers, is all working in our favor. Meaning that women are now 50 percent of the workforce. They graduate at a rate that’s 20 percent higher than men, in the United States. So if you want the most talented workers, you need to have a workplace that’s going to attract women as workers. And globally, if we want to compete — the U.S. economy — we’re going to have to get better than being one of only two countries in the world without a paid family leave policy, because companies will move off-shore. They’ll get competition from overseas, if we don’t make sure that our workplaces are fully meeting the needs of 21st-century workers.

So all of the external forces driving the population and driving the economy are working in our favor, meaning, the companies that respond on these issues well will be able to respond to the environment that is changing. So it’s a great opportunity. It’s probably the best opportunity we’ve had in generations to make these changes.

You’ve been a part of an administration that sees these issues the way that you do. How does it feel now to be doing this work at a moment when it’s really the opposite messaging coming out of the White House?

Well, one of the things that we’ve known, even when we were in office in the White House, we didn’t have Congress for much of our administration. Therefore, some of the big federal policy changes, like passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, dealing with some of these workplace issues that have to be dealt with statutorily, we’ve confronted for now, several years, the fact that we would not be able to change federal paid leave policy, for example. So for a long time now, I have thought that the best way to change is for companies, employers, workplaces of all sectors, to voluntarily start instituting these changes.

We also have employers that are stepping up and making changes. That’s another part of Time’s Up as well: We’re all about trying to make sustainable change. I think you’ll see more and more companies who are voluntarily providing paid leave, that are changing the composition of their boards to make them more diverse and get more women on them, promoting more women into C-suite. All of those are things that we are starting to see movement on and that we’ll continue to see progress on by the end of the year.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about this all happening organically because I am very curious about: What is the meeting like? Are you just in this room with Oprah, and Shonda Rhimes, and Gwyneth Paltrow? It’s the Illuminati meetings, but just the women!

You know, there’s a great energy. There’s a great support. I’ve been in a lot of meetings with women — because that’s what I do, I’ve worked on women’s issues my entire adult life. So I’m used to the wonderful energy that you get when you’re sitting around a table with the shared experience women have, and trying to make some positive change. For a lot of the actresses, and some of them have said this publicly in interviews, they didn’t really know each other. Their experience is more like being the only woman on set. We, I think on the outside, think: Oh, it’s the Hollywood community!

Right, that they all hang out.

That they all hang out together on a Saturday night. Apparently, not so much! So these meetings have been a wonderful opportunity for them to have that experience that I have had elsewhere, and that’s great for them. They have found a whole new support network for themselves, which is terrific.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 7, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jessica M. Goldstein is the Culture Editor of ThinkProgress.

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