What is sexual harassment? How can it be prevented? What procedures are in place to report it?
Those were some of the questions posed during a Florida Commission on Human Relations public workshop on sexual harassment Monday at Leroy Collins Library in Tallahassee.
A human relations workshop ordinarily wouldn’t grab media attention, but in the wake of allegations against two prominent public officials, Sen. Jack Latvala and former Public Service Commissioner Ritch Workman, and the discovery that the state has doled out more than $11 million to settle harassment claims over the past 30 years, a roundtable discussion on sexual harassment is a story of genuine public interest.
The commission is a state body that investigates and resolves discrimination complaints. Its website proclaims it is “United in One Goal: Equal Opportunity and Mutual Respect.”
In attendance at the workshop were several human relations professionals, most of whom were women. Sharon Ofuani, former director of Tallahassee’s Equity and Workforce development and noted champion of diversity in the workplace, moderated the discussion.
Speaking on the courage of those across the country who have broken silence about sexual harassment, Ofuani said, “This is just a cup that had runneth over.”
In other words, this is nothing new. It’s just reached a tipping point where confidence trumps fear of backlash for coming forward with accusations. Ofuani cited Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment upon his nomination to the high court in 1991.
“That was a big drop in the cup,” Ofuani said. “And then, (Bill) Cosby. Oh, that just filled the cup up.
“And now, almost every day.”
A friendly, open-minded discussion succeeded this context. Ofuani separated sexual harassment into two categories: Quid pro quo, in which superiors leverage power over coworkers in return for sexual favors, and sexual harassment that makes the work environment uncomfortable. The latter could be inappropriate language or innuendos — and sometimes inappropriate touching, in which case it becomes sexual assault, Ofuani said.
Still, there is no clear definition for sexual harassment; it depends largely on how an interaction is perceived, Ofuani said. Addressing a culture of victim blaming, Ofuani said sexual harassment cannot be brought upon someone by their own actions. A person’s outfit is not a solicitation for sexual remarks.
Ofuani then posited a golden rule.
“If it makes you uncomfortable,” she said. “Then perhaps sexual harassment is going on.”
A healthy, balanced discussion ensued. Some voiced concerns over a lack of due process in some of the allegations, saying that the knee-jerk reaction of an allegation can ruin careers and lives before innocence or guilt is determined. Some said training and education on the subject needs to be revamped and emphasized.
Michelle Wilson, executive director of the Florida Commission on Human Relations, said the agency does a lot of training as it’s requested and has hosted other workshops in the past on issues such as housing. She said the sexual harassment training was initiated by the commission.
Wilson said there’s been an overall uptick in attention placed on her agency, including increased media calls and individuals wishing to file complaints. She did not provide exact numbers. She stressed that the commission is a fact-finding organization that provides resources for both alleged victims and defendants.
In closing the discussion, Ofuani touched on what’s brought the issue of widespread sexual harassment to national attention: breaking silence. She said it’s something that should persist in relation to anything inappropriate in the workplace. Otherwise, “As long as you stay silent, it’s going to continue.”