Sexual Harassment: What You Need to Know and Do

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Lisa Ingarfield | @tritodefi

Elaine Marino left a long career in advertising in pursuit of a change of pace. After learning to code, she joined the leagues of software developers in Denver, a field dominated by men. Her experiences as a woman in this space led her to establish Lady Coders in 2013. Her goal for the organization: to help women in tech find community and mentorship. Lady Coders evolved from a meetup group to a conference to her current company, Equili. Drawing on her personal experiences and the experiences of other women in tech, Marino has set her sights on becoming a change agent. She is working to address gender equity, diversity, and inclusion problems in the IT industry and beyond.

After the Uber sexual harassment case broke in 2017, several women reached out to Marino to share their own stories of harassment in the tech industry. Women hold only about 25% of the jobs in information technology, and the culture of tech continues to be pretty hostile for women (see also this article in The Atlantic). According to Marino, women constantly experience high levels of microaggressions from their male peers. Despite this reality, Marino feels sexual harassment has not been discussed in any meaningful way since the 1990s, when Anita Hill came forward about the harassment she experienced from Clarence Thomas. And we all know how that ended. While the Congressional hearings brought attention to sexual harassment, precipitating a larger conversation and the development of many policies, the push for formal training has since faded, leaving many women adrift at sea.

In Marino’s conversations with women about their experiences, she has noticed a pattern: women in their twenties and early to mid thirties have no formal training or understanding of their rights when it comes to sexual harassment. It’s “just not on their radar,” Marino says. The workplace has evolved and the line between our personal and professional lives is more blurred than ever. Specifically within the tech industry the way we work with each other has shifted with the advent of flexible working hours, work from home, social media access, and other forms of online social and professional engagement. The stories Marino continues to hear make her jaw drop and come to one consistent conclusion: “Wow! We need to educate people.”

And so, on a snowy evening in January, she hosted an event to educate interested Denverites on what sexual harassment is and what both individuals and companies can do about it. In attendance were two lawyers, Surbhi Garg and Neeti Pawar, and Heather MacKenzie, a corporate healthcare professional who experienced sexual assault by a top executive and subsequently endured a year long court battle with the company. Since many of us were not able to attend this event, I thought it would be helpful to list some of the key elements discussed to help you understand the issue a little more deeply:

  1. Review your policy manual/employee handbook regarding the reporting process for sexual harassment.

  2. HR is generally your first line of reporting if you experience sexual harassment in the workplace. However, it is not necessary for a complaint to be made to HR in order for the company to be on notice. When a company is on notice, it triggers certain legal responsibilities.

  3. In the state of Colorado, if you share your experience and concerns with any manager or company representative higher than you, this is considered giving notice to the company.

  4. While an investigation by the company into a sexual harassment allegation is not required, it is best practice to do so. The company is required to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior.

  5. The sexual harassment must be severe or pervasive, but a one-time incident could rise to this level. Harassment becomes unlawful when it is “sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”

  6. If you are experiencing sexual harassment, write down all that has happened. Create a log with dates, and the names of those involved, including any witnesses.

  7. Think about what you need to feel safe. What would you like to see happen?

  8. Remember, sexual harassment is not your fault. The person doing the harassing is making a choice and you are not responsible for the decisions they make. You are entitled to a workplace free of harassment (based on a protected status).

If you want to know more about this, broads (because there is so much to know), Marino filmed the event, so you can hear the advice and wisdom first hand from the panelists. How great is that? You can also visit the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission’s website for additional guidance.