School Climate & Safety Opinion

Sexual Harassment and Assault: Where Do You Stand?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 20, 2016 6 min read
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Unfortunately, we all still have a lot to learn about sexual harassment and sexual assault. This is being written before the last of the presidential debates so we aren’t speaking to anything stimulated by that event. We are disturbed by the media coverage and subsequent conversations spawned in this election cycle. They unveil frightening misunderstanding, pervasive misplacement of responsibility and too much acceptance of the behaviors surrounding and leading to harassment and assault. Our generation of women in leadership had apparently misled ourselves or lulled ourselves into a belief that we had made more progress as a society than we have. We are also aware of the good fortune we have had to work and live with some remarkable men.

Of course, we naively always want women to be of support to one another. But we have learned over all these years that that is an unreal expectation. Long ago there was a secret passed among women that their demise as leaders might more likely come at the hands of the “mother’s mafia” than from the men in the room. Women expect much of each other and are practiced at overlooking and forgiving men. Therefore, from both genders we are hearing some ridiculous and unkind dismissing of actions that harm women and girls. And, since the campaigns have introduced vulgarity into the election language, it is a more societally visible issue. Children, both boys and girls, are learning. Do we want them to learn that if they are harassed they should move on to another workplace, or that kindergarten teaching is an alternative work for those who can’t handle it in business, or that locker rooms are deplorable, hostile places for principled young people to be? We are at risk of growing up another generation without gender respectfulness. Can we stop the cycle?

Part of the problem is the accepted practice of evaluating and commenting on a woman’s looks. Women even do it to each other. Admittedly, we pay attention to how we look. It is an important social behavior. But, the observations of others, even between women, takes us to the boundary of dangerous territory. Donald Trump stepped onto the slippery slope and crossed into that territory as he spoke about women while being recorded with Billy Bush on the bus. We were shocked but not surprised. Why would he be more respectful and hold women in greater value? We have already seen him mock a disabled journalist, heard his views about a judge of Hispanic descent, listened as he berated the family of a Muslim soldier and heard his views on race. Of course, we had hints about where he might go about women as he took on Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. Ironically, all is fair game and all those hateful experiences we thought we left behind are resurfacing. Our anger comes from these beliefs being held by a candidate for the president of our nation. Our sorrow comes from accepting, after all this time, that there is still so much work to be done. Our hope comes from raising this issue to the stature of a national debate and our optimism is that we will find our better selves as a society.

Locker Room Talk?
There is no room for locker room talk because what is said is a reflection of a demeaning view of women. Besides, this talk is forbidden in most locker rooms. It was years ago schools began searching offices, tool sheds, kitchens, and bus garages for lewd pictures or sayings, calendars with revealing pictures of scantily dressed women. It was a necessary and well-intentioned cleansing of a previously accepted way to view or talk about women. Well, now it is time for a different type of cleansing...of minds and mouths. Why? Because words and beliefs become actions and decisions.

The candidate’s wife excused the behaviors as those of teenaged boys. She is almost the mother of one. We have struggled to eliminate those behaviors for decades in schools. Does this cause us to wonder if we have been so out of touch with home values all this time? No, we will not overlook the anger, disappointment and outrage this issue caused.

A Look Inward
As educators, we have a responsibility to sort out own beliefs before professing the capacity to teach and to lead. According to a Huffington Post article on Donald Trump Jr., he said, “Women who can’t handle harassment don’t belong in the workforce...you should go maybe teach kindergarten.” It is unclear how working in a school and teaching little ones is not being part of the workforce. It is further unclear how one can presume that schools are exempt from harassment. And, it is horrific to imagine that we should accept the notion that if there if “women can’t handle harassment they don’t belong in the workforce.” Why not believe that if there is harassment, it is the harasser who does not belong in the workforce?

Anita Hill All Over Again
Most men and women with whom we have worked and known do not hold these beliefs. We hope this is true for you as well. The strange and hurtful drama that unfolded when Anita Hill stepped forward is not that far in the past and is eerily similar as accusers are stepping forward now. Why is an immediate response for many, men and women alike, to dismiss the accuser? And this is not a partisan conversation by any means. It is difficult to hold off judgment while the truth is sought. Our work requires that skill.

Societal Sexualization of the Female
An example of how we sexualize women can be found simply by turning to TLC and glimpsing at the show ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’. How is that not called child abuse? If that show had no viewers it would not exist. So both the station and viewers believe it is both ok and entertainment to sexualize toddlers. How can that be? Why hasn’t there been a clarion call for this to be stopped? And what about beauty pageants? Under the guise of scholarship...the fact remains that there is a beauty standard that must be met before winning a scholarship. These are just two examples of the society against which schools must push against.

No Gender Bathrooms, oh no!
Ironically, it is sexual assault that some are up in arms about when it comes to bathrooms and gender. Loud voices have been heard when the idea of a no-gender bathroom arises in schools. The spoken fear? Sexual assault. Yet there is little indication that transgender youth commit sexual assault. What will happen when bathrooms are marked “Either” and “Or” instead of “Boys” and “Girls”? See what happens when reading that? It is in that space that the investigation can begin. Whether thinking about bathroom assignments, or mindsets about how we look at girls and women...there are values that live in all of us that call for examination.

A Societal Wake-Up Call
So it is with urgency, we identify this moment, brought to us by the 2016 presidential election, as the wake-up call for all in schools. What is being modeled? What is being ignored? Where are seeds germinating for this objectification of others? Are we paying attention?

We may not be able to change a societal value quickly but we have been trying for decades. We have evolved as a society enough that women are imperative in the workforce. We have been preparing girls for new workplace roles and for leadership positions. Now, we have a female presidential candidate. We wonder how that has influenced the landscape for this conversation. But, the dark underside of the difference between how genders are viewed and treated has seen the light of day. Will we rebury it or this time will we wrestle these attitudes with conviction and find ourselves in a new place?

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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