Businesses, schools revisit sexual harassment policies
Suzanne Mellon believes the floodgates have opened.
With allegations of sexual harassment and assault leading to more women — and men — coming forward, and more of the accused losing jobs and status, workplace maltreatment must be addressed, the Carlow University president said.
"The reality is it's happening across all areas and walks of life," Mellon said.
The firing of longtime NBC "Today" show anchor Matt Lauer this week for what the network termed "inappropriate sexual behavior" in the workplace is the latest in an explosion of men in positions of power toppling from their perches following similar allegations.
Lauer was the latest in a list of celebrities, politicians and successful business leaders to be accused of behavior ranging from harassment to rape by both women and men.
#Metoo has served as a way for thousands to post their accounts of harassment and assault on social media.
Women working in politics also are stepping forward, claiming government workplaces are saturated in everything from innuendo to unwanted comments and touching.
In speaking with the New York Times about her experience with film mogul Harvey Weinstein, actress Gwyneth Paltrow said, "We're at a point in time when women need to send a clear message that this is over. This way of treating women ends now."
Sending a message
Mellon spoke in September at a Pittsburgh forum centered on the release of a video series compiled by Southwest PA Says No More, a regional coalition of organizations focused on ending domestic and sexual violence. In the videos, presidents of 13 colleges and universities in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties explain what their schools are doing to address campus sexual assault.
"I talked about the importance of being open to addressing it and calling it out in a pro-active way. It's almost like the floodgates are opening," Mellon said. "It's important for people to have a voice and not feel it's something they should be ashamed of or as if they did something wrong. ... There is a groundswell of people saying that happened to me, too.
"As a university we have the opportunity to have conversations about this. ... The part that I think needs greater examination is how has social media desensitized us to a degree, and how we get back to what is the decent and right thing to do, what is and is not appropriate," she said.
Mellon anticipates more campus programming, formal and informal, to "deal with this and change the cycle."
Judith Hansen O'Toole, the Richard M. Scaife Director/CEO of The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, oversees a small staff that is 80 percent women.
"It's very much in the air. We are definitely talking about it here," O'Toole said.
The Greensburg museum's employees enjoy friendly relationships, often posing for photos together, she said.
Following incidents such as publication of a photo of Sen. Al Franken appearing to grope a woman, a male staff member expressed concern.
"He said, 'I'm a little uncomfortable here,' " O'Toole said. "He feels completely innocent, but we took a number of photos where we embraced each other."
The employee is now concerned about possible misinterpretation if he puts his arm around someone, O'Toole said.
She recalled that early in her career, while working at a university art gallery in the 1980s, workplace training addressed sexual harassment.
"We were all very aware of it and sensitive to it," she said.
Hugging between men and women was inappropriate.
"You shook hands," O'Toole said.
The museum has policies and a staff handbook addressing sexual harassment. "Refresher" conversations may be held at future staff meetings, she said.
"We want to make sure people know that if they are uncomfortable they can talk to someone (in human resources) about that," O'Toole said.
Appreciative of a friendly staff, she envisions one potential worrisome fallout as employees try to determine workplace boundaries.
"I wonder if the playful and fun aspects will go away," she said.
Policies are the norm
As in most school districts, Hempfield Area has policies addressing harassment and discrimination and how to report incidents, says Superintendent Tammy Wolicki.
"I think it's part of the world we live in now," she said.
Staff and faculty training includes reminders to be respectful and responsible, she said.
Part of the new hire induction process addresses issues like not being alone with students to protect both parties.
"Jokes can be misinterpreted. We have to be mindful of the fact that what we say can be harmful to others and or ourselves," Wolicki said.
That includes written and verbal statements and is part of teaching children how to treat others, she said.
The world of retail is not immune, notes Carol Kinkela, owner of Carabella, a women's clothing and accessories boutique in Oakmont.
"As long as men and women work together, this will be an issue. The bottom line is it hurts the children and the wives," she said. "People need to have respect in the workplace. We need to respect each other for what we do. The sexual part should not come into play."
Not backing down
Beth Caldwell, executive director of Pittsburgh Professional Women and founder of its Leadership Academy for Women, recently posted a video on pittsburghbiztvshows.comoffering women tips on how to deal with aggressive behavior at work.
One incident that led to the topic was meeting a pharmaceutical employee from Morgantown, W.Va., who said she purposely dresses down at work and does not look at male colleagues. She feared that complaining about men's behavior could lead to being fired.
During a conversation a few years ago, several members shared stories of encounters with men who had gotten uncomfortably close, sometimes brushing against a woman's breasts.
Most women dismissed the touching as accidental, she said.
"What was interesting was we doubted us. ... Professionally empowered women still doubt themselves," she said.
"The good thing about something like Matt Lauer getting fired is that we are talking about it. Women are saying, 'Wait, I'm not going through this any more,' " Caldwell said.
"Not all men are bad. Not all women are victims. ... There has been a lot of 'boys will be boys' and 'sorry your feelings are hurt, toughen up.' We can't do that anymore. People are going to get fired," she said.
Caldwell notes the differences between inappropriate behavior, harassment, and assault. And she acknowledges that men and women in a workplace can engage in flirtatious behavior.
"We have to be strong about our boundaries. ... People my age (50) and older may say, 'Wait, is that my fault?' Younger women will say, 'Get your hands off me, (expletive).' Our children will not tolerate this. They know better," she said.
"The 'good old boy' reign is over. Women are finally standing up. It's an awful time to be in leadership, but also an important time to be in leadership," Caldwell said.
Reporter JoAnne Klimovich Harrop contributed to this story. Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MaryPickels.