Facing the Elephant in the Room: Eliminating Sexual Harassment Starts with Acknowledging It

Before I explore the uncomfortable topic of sexual harassment and sexual assault, I think it’s important to explore women’s issues for a moment so we can better understand the power dynamic in this country.

Let’s reflect on a few facts:

Women are a well-educated bunch in this country. Women earn almost 60% of undergraduate degrees and 60% of all master’s degrees, according to americanprogress.org.

However:

  • Roughly half the population of the United States is female, yet we’ve never had a woman president.

  • Based on the January 2017 S&P 500 list, women currently hold 5.2% of CEO positions at those S&P 500 companies, according to catalyst.org.

  • In 2018, 106 women hold seats in the United States Congress, comprising just 19.8% of the 535 members, according to Rutgers.edu.

  • In the legal field, 45% of associates are women but only 22% of partners and 18% of equity partners are women, according to americanprogress.org.

  • In 2014, women made up just 20% of executives, senior officers and management in U.S. high-tech industries.

  • As recently as 2016, 43% of the 150 highest-earning public companies in Silicon Valley had no female executive officers at all, according to americanprogress.org.

  • As recent as 1992, Carol Moseley Braun became the first African-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

  • Women weren’t allowed to vote until 1920 when the 19th amendment was ratified – not that long ago, folks.

Although we’ve come a long way in this country, it’s easy to see that men hold the majority of leadership positions in this country, and thus the power. When women are absent from the decision making process, it means that we’re not able to equally influence laws, cultural norms and processes that ultimately impact us.

When there’s such an unequal balance of power, it presents more opportunities for abuse by those in charge. Additionally, when we see accompanying cultural norms such as “boys will be boys,” we fail to teach our young men accountability. Never have I heard the saying, “girls will be girls.” Have you? Probably not, because it doesn’t exist.

It starts when girls are young, when we’re told to smile as if we have to make everyone around us feel comfortable. Have you ever heard anyone tell a man to smile? Yeah, me neither. And then girls become women and we’re taught to awkwardly laugh off the inappropriate comments, and brush away the hand grabs, the cat calls and the sexual propositions. Why? So we don’t make men feel uncomfortable, all at our own expense. And we fear speaking up because so often when we do, we’re questioned what we did wrong.

For example, look at Larry Nassar, the ex-USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor who was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for child pornography and molesting girls. One of his victims reported him in 2004, but the police interviewed Nassar and he explained to the police that he was simply performing a medical technique and that his victim was just uncomfortable with her body. The police didn’t believe the victim, no charges were filed and Nassar would go on to continue molesting scores of other girls.

Why mention this? Because it speaks to a bigger cultural issue in our country, where people in power get the last word and victims aren’t believed.

An informal poll of my female friends indicates that sexual harassment is common throughout many industries.

So what can we do? We can talk about it. We can stop pretending it’s the unwanted elephant in the middle of the room. A problem can’t be solved if we refuse to acknowledge its existence. Without question, we have a power imbalance in this country.

We can stop acting like women are overreacting. I can promise you we’re not.

If you’re in a leadership position, make sure everyone has a seat at the table. Do this by incorporating diversity recruitment into your hiring practices. Listen to people when they report an issue. Do a thorough investigation. If formal methods of reporting don’t exist at your organization, create one. Employees need to feel safe.

I admire the women who are now speaking up and the people who are now listening, including men. Because boys won’t just be boys – boys will be men and act like them too. America is having a social reckoning, and I’m sitting in the front row.

A version of this article appeared on the CU Times website.