Student Experience | Know the Facts and Know Your Rights

Joanna Grossman presents at the SMU Tower Center Oct. 30.

We hosted a conversation with SMU Law Professor Joanna Grossman about the #MeToo movement and its implications for policy surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace Oct. 30. Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar Destiny Rose Murphy ’19 wrote about what she learned.

“On Tuesday, October 30th SMU Dedman Law professor Joanna L. Grossman presented on ‘Sexual Harassment in the Post-Weinstein World.’ As a young woman who has recently entered the workforce (and who has already faced gender discrimination there) I came to this event with a lot of questions: What does sexual harassment look like, how is it and how should it be addressed, and what, if anything, did all those MeToo hashtags accomplish?

Destiny Rose Murphy ’19

Professor Grossman began her talk by laying out the facts on sexual harassment in the workplace, and they were surprising: 60% of women have experienced gender harassment, the rate of sexual harassment has been steady over several decades, and millennials cite more harassment than any other age group. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Grossman said most harassment victims are female and most perpetrators are male, but, contrary to most headlines, most harassment happens at the coworker level, not the supervisory level.

Grossman explained that, due to the current state of sexual harassment law, institutions focus on how they can avoid liability in court from sexual harassment claims, which is not the same thing as being focused on how to actually prevent or reduce harassment. Most institutions put ineffective (but legally protective) policies in place like formal anti-harassment policies, training and internal grievance response procedures for victims. However, in order for these policies to be effective, victims must use the official channels provided to report—which as Grossman pointed out, is the least likely course of action for a victim to take, for a variety of reasons. Studies have shown that only 8 to 15 percent of harassment victims tell another person about their experience. The people responsible for dealing with harassment might not even know that there is a problem. They might insist that their organization is healthy and work to maintain the status quo, leaving sexual harassment largely unchecked and victims without much needed support.

While Grossman didn’t have a magic solution to this multi-layered issue, she did point out that there are two indicators of which institutions are more likely to have harassment issues. For individual companies, gender equality (in terms of representation in the workplace) and organizational permissiveness (the likelihood that a person will get away with harassment) significantly influence harassment levels: the closer to gender parity and the more responsive a company is to reports, the less harassment takes place.

The #MeToo movement has had partial success in combating some of these issues. Over 200 high-profile men have lost their jobs over credible accusations, and the movement generally has raised awareness, increased reporting and believability, and has escalated institutional responses via public pressure. Additionally, the #MeToo movement has changed the cultural contexts in which we talk about sexual harassment. Before the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment was a phenomenon that many knew existed, but few felt empowered to talk about, which helped to keep reporting rates low. There is clear momentum behind the movement, but there’s no way to know if it will lead to lasting change.

After her presentation, Professor Grossman answered questions from the audience, one of which came from me. I was interested in gender sidelining, which she briefly explained as the phenomenon in which women have less access to networking, mentoring, and other workplace opportunities because male coworkers and supervisors are afraid that interacting with a woman will get them in trouble.

In my first Dallas internship I experienced this phenomenon first hand. I asked Professor Grossman what I could do to avoid sidelining in the future; specifically, I wanted to know how to be ‘less threatening’ in order to propel my career forward.

Professor Grossman’s response was striking in its simplicity: it’s not my job to avoid discrimination. She said I would be better served by finding mentors who are willing to help advance my career—whether that means grabbing an occasional cup of coffee, a networking dinner or just a professional introduction. As Grossman mentioned in her lecture, gender sidelining and gender discrimination, though illegal, are almost impossible to prove in a court. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but it also reminds us of something important: we have a long way to go. Sexual harassment law is not up to snuff, and it’s going to take strong policymakers, allies and advocates to change that. So, regardless of your gender or your job, take a look around next time you clock in, and do your part to help stop gender discrimination and sexual harassment.”