August 07, 2018

Workplace paradigm shift thanks to “National Awakening” around sexual harassment

Jenny Yang, former chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, says the national awakening around harassment – particularly sexual harassment – goes deeper than anomalous acts by rogue individuals.

“That could certainly be the case, but in many work environments, the problem is more systemic and cultural and there are deeply embedded structural and cultural factors that are contributing to harassment,” Yang said during a panel discussion “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” on Aug. 4 at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago. “We’ve seen that power structures hide problems as well as fail to actually hold leaders accountable when they see problems.”

Yang was joined on the panel by Tracey Billow, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in Chicago; Veronica Giron, who has led efforts to address sexual harassment in the workplace in California through SEIU United Service Workers West, Ya Basta Movement; and Jennifer Reisch, legal director, Equal Rights Advocate in San Francisco.

During her tenure at the EEOC, Yang organized a task force to study harassment in the workplace after growing frustration of seeing the same type of cases around the country, in many instances, a male restaurant manager harassing young women. The Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace issued a 2016 report.

The task force put together a report that studied the various trainings that had been done over the years and recommended minimal trainings designed to change the workplace culture. Since the report, Yang said she’s seen employers encouraging rethinking the kind of training encouraging more bystander intervention and encouraging more people to step up and they are providing multiple avenues of filing a complaint. She said employers are reevaluating their complaint processes and an innovative step has been to create a more confidential process, which has caused an increase in formal complaints.

Yang said it is important not to put the onus on victims of discrimination to come forward.

“It is incredibly important for leadership to engage on these issues, to be willing to understand the scope of a problem, through focus groups and assessments and for leadership to be affirmatively leading efforts to solve these problems,” Yang said. “Ultimately you need that commitment to shifting the power dynamics so that if you have underrepresentation of women in the workforce you’re doing a comprehensive assessment where you’re increasing the pipeline and insuring more diversity.”

Billow said the cultural shift she’s seen is where leaders are stepping forward and starting a new culture in the work place one of respect and civility. “Employers are being empowered to know that they have a responsibility in helping the organization to maintain its culture of respect,” Billow said. ““It’s not about harassment prevention, but understanding and knowing how you want to be characterized as an organization and reinforcing that standard at all times, in meetings and trainings and beyond.”

Giron said it’s important that leadership understand that women need “space to speak up.” She said it could take woman years to be able to “process what happened and speak up.” Her organization, SEIU United Service Workers West, represents more than 40,000 janitors, security officers, airport service workers and other property service workers across California.

Reisch also agreed that, “there is a shift happening, a real paradigm shift in how we think about what sexual harassment is and what solutions to discrimination need to look like.”

The moderator for the discussion was Robin Runge, a councilmember of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and chair of the section’s Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Working group.

To listen to a full discussion of the program, click here.


The Sexual Harassment in the Workplace panel is part of a six-part series.

To listen to previous webinars, click on the links below and insert your name and email to gain access to the programs.

Part One: Sexual Harassment & Assault in the Workplace: What is it, where does it come from, what is its scope and impact, and what is the history of sexual harassment law in response to it?

Part Two: Barriers to Combatting Sexual Harassment In and Out of Court and Legislative Responses in the #MeToo Moment

Part Three: Hey Hun! Just how bad do you want your heat fixed?" – Sexual Harassment in Residential Housing.

Part Four: The Shameful Truth: Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession

Part Five:What is the Link Between Sexual Harassment, Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence in the Workplace?,”

Partnering with the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice for the six-part series were the ABA Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence, the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, and the ABA Young Lawyers Division. Co-sponsors for the Annual Meeting panel: ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, ABA Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence,, Criminal Justice Section, Center for Human Rights, Section of International Law, Commission on Immigration, Section of Labor and Employment Law, Section of Litigation (invited), Section of State and Local Government Law, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Commission, Commission on Disability Rights, Standing Committee on Professionalism and Section of Family Law.