Panel addresses shortcomings of ‘me too’ campaign for women of color

By Cailin Crowe
Medill Reports

“Me Too” — it’s a short but powerful phrase that has taken social media, politics, workplaces and dinner tables by storm…at least for white women.

The viral social media campaign has been tweeted more than 1.7 million times and is credited with creating a unified platform for women to share sexual harassment stories. But reporting and sharing stories of sexual harassment remains more difficult for women of color compared to white women, according to Veronica Arreola, the director of Latin@s Gaining Access to Networks for Advancement in Science. And while actress Alyssa Milano is widely credited with the tweet that launched the “Me Too” hashtag, others point out that a black woman, Tarana Burke, started the movement 10 years ago to provide support for women of color who are survivors of sexual assault.

“We’ve been sounding this alarm for years. People just started noticing when white women joined in,” said Arreola.

Arreola was one of five panelists featured at an early November event, “Everyday Feminism: Making the Workplace Better for Women,” hosted by Women Employed, a Chicago-based advocacy group. The event was held on a frigid fall Wednesday night, but had the palpable energy of a Saturday night dance club. It felt like a feminist oasis for working women on a top floor of the Merchandise Mart. The panel featured five business leaders who advocate for working women in Chicago and was facilitated by Women Employed president and CEO Iliana Mora.

Sexual harassment was a priority issue for the group given recent national headlines. Despite the current watershed moment regarding accountability for sexual harassment, Arreola said sexual harassment issues are uniquely challenging for women of color and it’s important to understand why.

First, it’s important to understand that women of color are more likely to be harassed, she said, “because people think that’s what our nature is.” White women’s bodies are regarded as having an “asexuality” or “purity,” she said, whereas women of color are considered sexual “by default.”

That difference presents itself in unique ways at work. She said that women of color are more likely to be doubted when they report harassment because their bodies are viewed as inherently sexual.

The extra difficulty for women of color is evidenced by Harvey Weinstein’s response to Lupita Nyong’o sexual harassment allegations, according to Arreola. Nyong’o is the only actress who Weinstein specifically attacked for making allegations against him. Why is that? “Maybe because she’s a black woman,” Arreola said.

“I think that in some ways women of color didn’t speak up right away with ‘Me Too’ because we have a higher standard [for being believed],” she said. “A lot of us have been talking about these issues for a long time, but no one was listening.”

Latina women, especially in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — also “carry that baggage” into labs, according to Arreola. She said that because Latina women’s bodies are viewed as inherently sexual, their clothing is policed at work. “Latina women in labs are more [likely] to be called out or talked to about the loud bright colors they wear or low necklines.”

The panelists offered specific ways to begin to address these stereotypes and chip away at age-old workplace cultures that permit sexual harassment.

Women Employed defines sexual harassment as any verbal or physical interaction, suggestion, remark, decision-making or behavior pattern that is sexual and unwanted. Victims of harassment are encouraged to speak directly to the harasser at the time of the incident, keep a detailed record of the harassment, talk to co-workers and use formal complaint procedures.

The panel also discussed mistakes that men should avoid in response to the national explosion of sexual harassment allegations.

One of the biggest mistakes men can make is to stop meeting one-on-one with women at work, according to Amy Best, a panelist and the chief human resources officer at Exelon Corporation. Women can’t be removed from the decision-making table, she said: “That’s only going to further slow down the growth of women.”

“If men feel scared to be one-on-one with you in a meeting, that means he thinks you’re going to lie about sexual harassment,” Best said. “If we stop having one-on-one meetings with our male mentors or male bosses, we’re never going to get anywhere.”

Alexander, the only male panelist and the chief operating officer for 1871, a hub for Chicago’s technology and entrepreneurial scene, said the best way to combat men’s fear is with awareness. He said men need “low pressure environments” where they can learn and be trained about sexual harassment. Workplaces need to create consistent, clear sexual harassment policies for employees to easily access, he said.

He also made it clear to the female-dominated audience that he was not apologizing for men’s behavior. “It shouldn’t be notable that you’re a man in the workplace who made it a whole day without sexually harassing,” he said.

Photo at top: Panelists discuss issues women face at work during “Everyday Feminism: Making the Workplace Better for Women” event hosted by Women Employed.(CailinCrowe/MEDILL)