SPJ Florida panel: It is not just defining sexual harassment but doing something about it

Abuse webinar capture 1
SPJ Florida’s “Abuse in the Newsroom” webinar featured (from the top left) Suzette Speaks, Ally Coll Steele, Cary Hughes Weekes and Alison Bethel McKenzie. Captured photo

By Sharon Dunten is editor of SizingUpTheSouth.com and is SPJ Region 3 Assistant Regional Director. She is also a freelance journalist/photojournalist.

Workforce sexual harassment may no longer be the elephant in the room. Fueled by the #MeToo movement, the defining of sexual harassment in the newsroom and the organizations spun out of this movement are holding news leaders accountable. But the movement doesn’t stop there. New groups are also providing resources and conducting serious conversations on what to do next to stamp out harassment so women do not have to tolerate it anymore.

SPJ Florida logoOn Tuesday, April 24, SPJ Florida held a webinar entitled, “Abuse in the Newsroom,” with three professional female panelists to discuss the national topic of sexual harassment against women in newsrooms and the proactive programs developed to counteract the abuse.

The women included Society of Professional Journalists Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie, Co-Founder of The Press Forward (ThePressForward.org) Cary Hughes Weekes and Co-Founder of The Purple Campaign (PurpleCampaign.org) Ally Coll Steele. The webinar was moderated by Suzette Speaks, a Miami-based television host, practicing attorney, emcee and speaker. She is the founder of the Fort Lauderdale Law Group, PLLC.

Suzette Speaks
Suzette Speaks

Speaks’ first statement and question for the panel was the results of a recent EEOC study stating more than 75  percent of women interviewed said they experienced sexual harassment in their workplace. The panelists verified that harassment was not unusual for newsrooms either.

“The more we let it pass, the more it will happen to the next woman,” said Alison Bethel McKenzie. 

Defining sexual harassment

Ally Coll Steele
Ally Coll Steele

Attorney Ally Coll Steele defines sexual harassment into two categories: Quid Pro Quo is when a supervisor offers something to or threatens an employee in exchange for sex. This is illegal and wrong even if the employee acquiesces. 

Cary Hughes Weekes said as a young journalist she experienced “Pro Quo” sexual harassment. “In a job interview I was propositioned,” she said. Brushing it off as awkward moment, Weekes said she asked the interviewer in the second meeting what were the next steps to her acquiring the job. She said she again was propositioned.  A sexual task was required to move onto the job offer. 

“I didn’t know it was illegal. I didn’t know my rights,” said Weekes.

Working in a Hostile Work Environment also is defined as sexual harassment. When unwelcome sexual advances and/or verbal or physical conduct affects a person’s employment by interfering with their ability to do their job or by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment, it is sexual harassment, as stated on The Press Forward website. 

“It is the words or conduct that is related and unproductive in the workplace that negatively impacts one or more coworkers.” 

This unprofessional work conduct can include propositioning a coworker for sex, sexualizing them by inappropriately commenting on their appearance, telling offensive jokes or sharing pornographic images, or degrading a person’s gender.

“If you couldn’t say ‘something’ to someone’s mother, than it is not appropriate,” said Weekes. 

EEOC logoWhether it is Quid Pro Quo or Hostile Work Environment, sexual harassment is illegal, states the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). “Sexual harassment is a form of illegal sex discrimination that violates federal and state law. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act applies to employers with 15 or more employees; similar state laws can apply to employers with as few as two employees. So more likely than not, your employer is covered.”

Steele said she was also harassed as a young professional but said she was more surprised that “everyone already knew about the problem with this person.”

Gretchen Carlson book coverThe panelists also mentioned another resource to identify if a woman is undergoing sexual harassment. It is Gretchen Carlson‘s book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back. Carlson, a former Fox News host, filed a lawsuit against her employer, Roger Ailes. She received a $20 million confidential settlement and also a public apology from Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox. 

What has developed after #MeToo?

Alison Bethel McKenzie
Alison Bethel McKenzie

SPJ has adopted an initiative to help women in the news industry navigate issues of sexual harassment in newsrooms, McKenzie said. The initiative includes the SPJ webpage, “Resources for combating sexual harassment in the newsroom.”

“The Society of Professional Journalists has compiled the following resources in light of the increasing sexual misconduct allegations against high-profile male journalists. These are for journalists everywhere, but especially for those being harassed, those whose employers don’t provide employee training or those colleagues who know harassment is taking place but aren’t sure what to do about it,” states the SPJ website page.

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Most newspapers have sexual harassment policies, said McKenzie, but enforcing them is another problem. “It needs to be beyond online training,” she said. 

Cary Hughes Weekes
Cary Hughes Weekes

ThePressForward.org has also taken a front line in fighting for change in workplaces for women. “In the wake of powerful men in the media” facing accusations of sexual harassment, “we came together on social media and it quickly turned into doing something,” said Weekes.

See who is on their Board of Advisors.

The Press Forward is working on five initiatives to change cultures in newsrooms:

  1. Innovate Sexual Harassment and Assault Training: Because current harassment training is ineffective, if not broken, we will partner with the Poynter Institute and work with newsrooms across the country to raise awareness and to educate, with in-person training and original content.
  2. The Press Forward logoCulture Assessments: We will work with newsroom leaders to help them assess workplace environments. This will entail conducting focus groups and collecting informal and confidential feedback from their workforce and delivering specific recommendations to improve the workplace environment, especially for women.
  3. Industry Blueprint: We will conduct a six-month study with newsrooms across the country to understand the state of the industry culture and make concrete recommendations for change. Partnering with the International Women’s Media Foundation  and Newseum, we will share data and recommendations.
  4. Legal Defense Fund: In collaboration with TIME’S UP™, we will create a legal defense fund for the vulnerable in the media industry so that those in critical but lower-profile positions also have a voice and have access to legal advice when they face discrimination or harassment in the workplace.
  5. Thought Leadership on Solutions: Partnering with Poynter, we will offer best-practice policy guidelines and standards, together with original editorials on specific solutions for the industry. Working with journalism schools across America, we will develop specifics into curriculum on preventing abuses of power in the workplace and covering related issues with professionalism and integrity.

“We need to get rid of this problem as quickly as we can,” Weekes said.

PurpleCampaign.org tackles education, actions and elections by supporting “Courageous women have broken the silence by sharing their experiences with sexual harassment in the workplace, exposing a systemic problem that exists across every industry.”

The Purple CampaignReform has come out of the #MeToo movement, said Steele. “New policy and expectations, along with website action and resources” will set the movement in action, and women also need to support lawmakers who support the movement, she said.

The Purple Foundation is educating industry leaders, businesses and the public about sexual harassment in the workplace. The foundation is building leadership councils, developing resources and organizing information campaigns to raise awareness. 

“Cultural change has to come from the top down, and trust has to be built,” said Weekes.

Many sexual harassment training programs, including online training, have not been successful. “Trainings are broken,” said Weekes. “It is seen as how not to get in trouble rather than solving problems.”

Electoral advocacy is also key to the Purple Campaign. This focus, as stated on their website, wants to make lasting change by electing lawmakers who will take action to end workplace sexual harassment by running paid media campaigns, registering and turning out more women voters and supporting candidates directly.

But dealing with the power dynamics of powerful men, for example, on Capitol Hill and in major newsrooms, has its own set of circumstances. 

The power dynamics and retaliation

Capito Hill photo
Power dynamics on Capitol Hill can lead to an imbalance of power between men and women.  Flickr photo

These issues can be seen on Capitol Hill where power dynamics are in play with not only legislators but also lobbyists and government officials. Weekes said many people place Congressional members on pedestals and want to be of public service to those leaders. 

“The imbalance of power [in the workplace] can be tricky,” said Weekes.

“The imbalance of power [in the workplace] can be tricky,” she said. President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky might be an example of the imbalance of power by a powerful man, Weekes said.

Within the newsroom, Steele said women are overwhelmingly harassed because fewer women are in leadership. Woman have accepted these behaviors for years but now are seeing of a big cultural shift on the issue of sexual harassment, she said.

Looking the other way
Many women have been putting up with sexual harassment and looking the other way. CBC Photo

“In the media, it has been a man’s game,” said McKenzie. Historically, the major networks power anchors consist of three to four men, she said, “and women want to be in that game too.” 

Until recently, the broadcasting culture for women has been “put up with things [sexual harassment] and look the other way” if you want the best beat, the best story, she said. “If you want to advance, do not make trouble.”

Tolerating sexual harassment in newsrooms is “not okay,” said McKenzie. 

An acceleration of continued sexual harassment may also include retaliation. Women face retaliation by their abusers if they speak up or report incidents of sexual harassment. In a recent EEOC study, 70 percent of women interviewed said they experienced retaliation for whistleblowing on an abuser.

According to the EEOC site, women participating in a complaint process are protected from retaliation under all circumstances. Other acts to oppose discrimination are protected as long as the employee was acting on a reasonable belief that something in the workplace may violate EEO laws.

For example, under the complain process, retaliation might be unlawful if a woman faces: 

  • reprimand the employee or give a performance evaluation that is lower than it should be;
  • transfer the employee to a less desirable position;
  • engage in verbal or physical abuse;
  • threaten to make, or actually make reports to authorities (such as reporting immigration status or contacting the police);
  • increase scrutiny;
  • spread false rumors, treat a family member negatively (for example, cancel a contract with the person’s spouse); or
  • make the person’s work more difficult (for example, punishing an employee for an EEO complaint by purposefully changing his work schedule to conflict with family responsibilities).

“Retaliation is a real thing,” said Weekes, “It is not just losing your job. Your reputation is on the line.

Men’s perceptions going sideways

The movement to empower women in the workplace may have some odd detours. Steele said some men are nervous on where the lines are in the workplace in regard to sexual harassment. For example, some men say they will not have a business dinner with a woman or travel with a female colleague.

Anita Hilll photo
Anita Hill testified against the nomination of Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas based on alleged sexual harassment she experienced from Thomas. Photo by Gage Skidmore 

What are the policies for interoffice dating? Is it appropriate to socialize outside the office? Each organization has their own policies and need to be clarified to employees, said Steele. 

Furthermore, women don’t want to be removed from closed door meetings or see men refuse to work in the field with women in fear of accusations of sexual misconduct, she said.  

“There needs to be dialogue between men and women on what is sexual harassment and what is not sexual harassment,” said McKenzie.

Some men might also play the false claim card. For example, high profile cases of college men accused of sexual abuse have been rebutted and even the Anita Hill sexual harassment case against Supreme Court Justice candidate Clarence Thomas was discounted by Senate Judiciary Committee. 

“False claims are at 6 – 8 percent and are rare,” said Weekes. 

In a 2013 FBI Uniform Crime Reporting study, only 2 percent of rape or sexual assault charges were deemed false. In addition, a 2010 Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts study estimated only 2 to 10 percent of allegations taken to authorities are found to be false. 

How can leaders and managers help women who have been sexually harassed?

There are real world applications and steps to take to address sexual harassment in the workplace, including newsrooms. “First, listen to the reporter [woman] and ensure their position [complaint] doesn’t stop there,” said McKenzie. Also:

  • Talk to the woman as a friend
  • Validate the woman’s feelings after she experienced sexually harassment from a colleague
  • Make sure the woman feels safe
  • Gain permission from the woman before advancing the issue elsewhere
  • Encourage her to document everything. You don’t want “he said, she said.”

Weekes also said that management needs to be supportive by:

  • Hear what the person is saying and feels “she is being heard”
  • Validate that there is a problem
  • The duty is to investigate no matter “how treasured the man may be in the newsroom.”
  • Understand this is how trust is built for woman when it comes to open dialogue about a potentially toxic atmosphere in a newsroom
  • Take on the challenge of creating blue prints for guidelines and best practices for issues of sexual harassment 

Better Brave logoSteele said men can be an important messenger for the elimination of sexual harassment in the workplace. What can a man do to help? Ask the woman to connect to BetterBrave.com for great tools on how to document a case against someone who is sexually harassing her or others. 

Working with women
Young women are sometimes intimidated to talk to male supervisors about sexual harassment.

“Young woman subordinates are intimidated to talk to them [men],” said McKenzie. Men in management positions need to reassure women that the harassment issue will be “back up by the top boss” and a systematic approach will be taken to process this issue, she said. Women in management might be able to share experiences. 

“Live by the Golden Rule and lead by example,” said Weekes about how men can help.

Steele said to be aware that there are time restraints of 365 days to file a lawsuit with the EEOC. State laws may differ on the time restraints. 

“First, find someone you trust and are comfortable sharing with,” said Steele. 

Weekes said she encourages women to not give up. “Change is coming. Press forward because this is so important,” she said. “It is not going to be tolerated anymore and people are fighting for you daily.”

The Press Forward website has a page of newsroom resources for a wide range of topics on sexual harassment and becoming proactive in implementing reform in newsroom.

“Everyone has a role to play in this movement and to push for the right kind of change, whether it be with a mentor, a good bystander or to set a tone that this type of behavior will not be tolerated,” said Steele. 

Sharon Dunten mug
Sharon Dunten

Sharon Dunten is editor of SizingUpTheSouth.com and SPJ Region 3 Assistant Regional Director. She is a freelance journalist/photojournalist at Dunten Media Services LLC. 

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