New York City Taking Aim at Workplace Sexual Harassment

Bill O’Reilly. Harvey Weinstein. Matt Lauer. President Trump. Stories of sexual harassment are everywhere. New York City is addressing the issue head-on with a new set of laws that will affect every public and private business in the city. Wendy Rhodes begins our story with a street side poll.

“Yes, I’ve suffered sexual harassment at my work place. Yes. No, I actually have not experienced it. I’ve seen it and I’ve personally experienced it.”

Me too. The hashtag heard round the world. People are speaking out more than ever these days against sexual harassment. And city councilwoman Helen Rosenthal told me that New York City is listening.

Rosenthal and Rhodes: Hi, It’s Helen. I’m really excited, umm. Me too. Me Too! Two of my favorite words. That’s a funny way to begin.

Rosenthal is the chair of the Committee on Women. She’s pushing a package of twelve bills through the city council that are aimed at reducing sexual harassment in the workplace. She addressed a packed room of legislators, activists, and business owners at the first public hearing on the bills in February.

SOUND (Rosenthal speaking at city council meeting): We must take responsibility for crafting the most comprehensive, most survivor-centered, and most holistic anti-sexual harassment policy and procedures in the country.

The bills require companies to display a poster explaining what sexual harassment is and how to report it anonymously. Businesses with fifteen or more employees will be required to complete online training twice a year. Rosenthal says these laws are long overdue.

Rosenthal: We’ve lost out as a society on so many ideas, good achievements, just because of sexual harassment in the workplace. We have to interrupt that.

All companies in New York City will be bound by the new rules. Companies like Serious Eats, a culinary website founded by Ed Levine in 2006. Levine says he’s never really thought much about sexual harassment training.

Levine: It just has never come up, and I don’t know if it’s because people aren’t telling me that they’ve experienced it or whether it just hasn’t been an issue.

Levine says he tries to foster an environment where people feel comfortable coming forward. But he admits that good intentions aren’t always enough.

Levine: At worst, it’s a pain in the ass for companies that don’t need it. And at best, it offers a path to people being more sensitive to this whole issue.

Others say that people need to be more than just sensitive to the issue. Marianne Cooper is a sociologist at Stanford University and an expert on sexual harassment policy.

Cooper: If you have a good sexual harassment policy in place, and people really feel they can come forward, you should expect an increase in complaints about sexual harassment. And you shouldn’t interpret it a as sign that we’re doing something wrong. What you really want is for people to come forward.

Cooper says racial and ethnic minorities are at particularly high risk for sexual harassment, and that assertive, independent women in positions of authority, are also at risk.

Cooper: Sexual harassment becomes a way to knock women down a peg. Sex and power are closely connected.

To prevent sexual harassment, Cooper says that everyone needs to be on board.

Cooper: When men push back against sexist remarks, for example, people tend to take that more seriously than when women do.

But Levine worries that city-required training might turn some men off.

Levine: It’s a little bit like fire drills. They become obligations that people tune out. Oh, you know we have to have a sexual harassment training day. But look, if it saves one woman from being sexually harassed, it’s probably a good thing.

New York City’s Commission on Human rights will be tasked with handling complaints. The bills are expected to pass next Wednesday. But even so, councilwoman Rosenthal says that the new laws are far from a solution.

Rosenthal: Are they enough? Absolutely not.

Rosenthal says that the council will be proposing even stronger regulations to the city’s sexual harassment laws at their meeting this June.

Wendy Rhodes, Columbia Radio News.

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