Sexual harassment a long-overdue conversation
Many of Oregon's biggest stories of 2017, from the blue-state backlash against President Trump and his war on "sanctuary cities" to the ongoing affordable housing crunch (stretching from Ashland to Astoria), could have been predicted on Jan. 1.
Others, like the Eagle Creek fire, jumped unforeseen into the news.
But there was one dramatic story that is both frustrating familiar and refreshingly reinvigorated.
Many men in power will remember this as the year that their pasts caught up to them.
In early October, the New York Times broke a big story about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein's long pattern of sexual harassment and abuse of women.
The revelations fueled the #metoo movement that has led to documented patterns of misconduct by more than 50 prominent men, from Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and New York Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine to NBC News' Matt Lauer and comedian Louis C.K.
Oregon, while not at the center of the news, drew national attention later in October.
Shortly after the Times' expose, an Oregon Republican operative tried tying Democratic state Sen. Sara Gelser to a $5,000 contribution Weinstein made to the Oregon Democratic Party two decades ago (long before Gelser was in elective office).
On Oct. 18 she called his bluff and raised the stakes, tweeting back that she hadn't benefitted from Weinstein's cash but had been "groped" by an unnamed Republican state senator.
Two days later, state Senate President Peter Courtney stripped state Sen. Jeff Kruse of his committee assignments because of unspecified "ongoing workplace issues."
Given the proximity to Gelser's tweet it didn't take long for people to connect those dots. Indeed, Gelser and fellow Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayard soon confirmed that Kruse was the one with the wandering hands.
On Dec. 6, Gelser was among dozens of women profiled in Time Magazine's "Person of the Year" edition for their role in "breaking the silence" and calling out the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault.
A week later, the Beaverton Valley Times wrote about the woman who blew the whistle on prominent businessman Jerry Jones Jr. She'd been a volunteer at the Beaverton Area Chamber of Commerce; he chaired the chamber board.
Within a week of the story breaking, Jones had resigned under fire from the Chamber. After another accuser stepped up last week, he resigned from his elected seat on the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District Board.
It's now clear that for men who work in the public eye, a credible allegation of sexual harassment, backed up by solid reporting, is now enough to derail a career.
But most of those accused of sexual harassment aren't famous — and neither are their accusers. They don't work in statehouses, movie studios or news stations. Instead, the harassment and abuse takes place in warehouses, office cubicles and restaurants.
Earlier this year, six women who'd worked at Nonna Emilia Ristorante in Aloha settled a federal lawsuit filed against their employer. The women say they were subjected to a variety of sexual misconduct — ranging from crude comments to unwanted physical contact by a manager, who was the owner's son. Those complaints were supported by a civil rights investigation conducted by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.
Many Oregon women who find themselves in a hostile work environment remain silent. Others who have been subjected to sexual harassment will take their concerns to a manager or human resources director (as did Gelser and the Nonna Emilia employees). When that doesn't work, they can file a BOLI complaint or hire a lawyer.
So far, there's been no spike in the sexual harassment complaints filed with BOLI. (The number has remained fairly constant over the past five years, ranging from a low of 145 complaints in 2013 to a high of 185 last year.)
But, according to BOLI officials, in the past several weeks they've received a surge in requests for trainings and materials from employers to combat workplace sexual harassment. (To make suggest a request, call 971-673-0824.)
That's a hopeful sign, because the solution to sexual harassment is not only giving voice to the victims, but in educating everyone that there's been a cultural shift.
2017 will not be known as the year we ended sexual harassment. But it can be the year that we started a long-overdue conversation about why inappropriate conduct was largely ignored in the past and how we ensure that it's not tolerated now or in the future.
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