From Accusatory Questions to Accountability in the Fight Against Workplace Sexual Harassment and Abuse

When I was in my early thirties, a man raped me as I was walking to my car after a labor rally. I was by myself, and I was attacked at gunpoint. I later found out it was a toy gun. This only added to my shame.

I’d like to say that I have completely processed and healed from my assault. Much of the time, it feels like I have. I have a fulfilling job as an organizer for social justice. I care for my beautiful daughter, who just celebrated her first birthday, and I have a loving family that lives close by and supports us. Despite my trauma, I live my life with purpose, optimism and hope for a brighter future.

But simmering below the joy and success of my day-to-day life, in ways that still wake me up in the middle of the night, my assault lives with me every day. It’s hard to feel like justice has been served when there is seemingly no plan to address the culture that led my attacker to my car to terrorize me that night, and that results in one out of six women experiencing rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.

For a long time, I haven’t known what to do with my lingering feelings nor how to channel them. Until now.

When the #MeToo movement captured the country’s attention and cast a spotlight on what had long been in the shadows—the rampant sexual assault and harassment that occurs in workplaces throughout the country—I knew that it was time for me to do something public about my personal attack.

I was disgusted by the whispered conversations and finger-wagging whenever someone spoke up. Those reactions underscore the power dynamics that feed this societal pattern of abuse, and they perpetuate a culture of harassment and assault.

I was tired of the same victim-blaming questions: Weren’t they flirting earlier? Did you see what she was wearing? Why didn’t she report it right away? He’s such a great guy—are you sure you didn’t misread the situation? Instead, I started thinking about the questions we should ask: What was the power dynamic in their relationship? Did she feel empowered and secure enough in her job to report her boss? Are there policies in place to make sure there is a fair process to address the issue?

While our whole culture needs to shift, one place to start is our workplaces—and not just by ousting individual abusers. Since the brave victims of Harvey Weinstein lit the flame that roared into the #MeToo inferno, no industry has been immune to the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault allegations making headlines every day.

Three-quarters of all workplace harassment incidents go unreported, likely because 25 percent of the women who suffer from them have identified their harassers as men with influence over their careers.

It’s time to force organizations and institutions to take a hard look at how their office cultures fuel, justify and even reward rampant sexual harassment and assault. It’s time to demand that they fully evaluate their practices and policies, both official and unofficial, that allow harassment to occur. It’s time to call out leading organizations across sectors and industries to disclose what they are doing—or not doing—to address this epidemic.

As employees and consumers, we deserve to know whether corporations require non-disclosure agreements or forced arbitration; whether they have clear reporting mechanisms; and the percentages of women, people of color and LGBTQ people in their leadership—as well as whether they are paid comparably to their white, male counterparts.

To truly dismantle our destructive culture, corporations must be part of the solution and join with survivors and advocates to address the structural and systemic causes of the abuses of power. I created the We Believe You Fund to both hold corporations to account and provide them with the tools and resources they need to address the systemic challenges that allow sexual harassment and assault to go unchecked. While I may never be completely free from the trauma forced on me by my rapist, I plan to do everything I can to ensure that my young daughter lives in a country where women are respected and safe.

I believe that everyone, regardless of where they work and what work they do, should be able to earn a living free from fear of sexual harassment, abuse and violence. It’s time for CEOs, C-suite executives, shareholders, trustees and the other powerful individuals who call the shots in every sector to stand up and say the same.

JoEllen Chernow is the founder of the We Believe You Fund, an organization identifying and eliminating the culture of harassment, assault and victim shaming that results in and maintains rape culture in workplaces. 

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Comments

  1. Liz harrison says:

    Is this piece an announcement of a new non-profit (or fund”? If so, where is the website? Are you a 501c3? How will your fund go about effecting change in the workplace? I’m sorry but there are so many women who like you (and me) who have endured horrific rape, incest, sexual assault and I don’t understand how you are proposing through this fund to fund something to help stop it — in the workplace or anywhere else. No one (particularly a Ms. reader) will disagree with your description of the problem. But you leave the reader saying, yes, this is a problem. Yep, I get it … but. what is this fund? I might actually make a donation if there was any information about the fund in this article.

  2. Thank you for telling your story. This is an amazing piece and I’m very inspired by all your work to combat gender-based violence and harassment.

  3. I was sexually harassed by an attorney at my job who because he was taller than me constantly looked at my breast, which were large, even after I told him to speak to my face. While I was working on a trial with him he called my home and left a message. He started calling my house multiple times during the day while we were both at and refused to stop,, until I had an investigator in our office talk to him and threatened to go to the DA. I’ve been told I have a sexy voice by another man I worked with and that I’d make more money doing phone sex. It’s constant.

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