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UD Webinar talks supporting women in the workplace

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Wendy Smith, left, the co-director of the Women’s Leadership Initiative at the University of Delaware, speaks with New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor.

NEWARK – It’s been three years since the New York Times’ report on Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault allegations ignited a broader discussion on workplace sexual harassments, but there’s still tremendous work to be done to protect women in the workplace.

“In the business world, there has been a revolution in part of how the liability in these stories have shifted. It’s not about the reputational damage, it’s about not rooting out the problem while there,” said Jodi Kantor, a New York Times reporter.

Kantor spoke Friday about the process of breaking the Weinstein story as detailed in her and Megan Twohey’s book “She Said” during University of Delaware’s webinar “Allyship, Advocacy and Accompliceship.” She found moments of courage from women who ultimately spoke out against the power structures that kept perpetrators in their place – and that’s forced people to really listen.

But the cultural change is ultimately toothless without legal reform for every workplace, Kantor pointed out.

“We’ve seen this enormous display of accountability on the corporate level. But what we haven’t seen is the laws of the land change – and that’s what protects the McDonald’s worker. That’s what protects women,” she told business leaders. “The federal sexual harassment laws in this country are very weak, and women don’t feel protected.”

Federal sexual harassment laws do not include companies with 15 or less employees, which could mean many women in the workplace do not have that safety net. Culture also starts with the top, and it’s harder to have the conversation in blue collar jobs or fields with male leaders at the top. Kantor pointed to another New York Times story where a boss at a Ford auto plant only let a female worker change shifts after she had sex with him.

“If you look at a woman in that position, is she going to feel protected and free to speak up?” Kantor said. “We have definitely been through a cultural change, [but] I think that not enough has changed in this regard in the last three years.”

To create a culture to support women coming forward if they are harassed in the workplace, Kantor advised business leaders to really have the conversation of making the hard decision to act on the allegation.

In Weinstein’s case, he was able to go on for years after assaulting 80 women in part because of the system that protected him. But Kantor said it was also because women who did tell – particularly in 2014 and 2015 – asked who they told to keep it a secret. In turn, that created a “Bermuda triangle,” where well-intentioned people suppressed reports of harassment, she added.

“On one hand, it seems like the respectful thing to do to honor their wishes. But in the last few years, there’s a growing sense that those business leaders say, ‘I will protect you every way I can,’” Kantor said. “That is the path forward.”

But still, she acknowledged there’s thousands of women left out who work for organizations without formal structure or a human resources department.

Breaking the silence is key, as Kantor said that many women during the course of her investigation were reluctant to come forward. But by the end of the investigation, she said that her sources had little regrets by coming forward.

As for Kantor, the north star that guided her work three years ago to give women a chance to be seen still holds true: “We can’t change what happened, but we can convert it to productive use.”

“That is the whole lodestar to the investigation,” she said. “Once these women were heard, it was an experience of enormous relief because it enabled them to totally reframe what they had experienced for a larger conversation.”

By Katie Tabeling

[email protected]

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