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Blog Insight & Commentary

Deep Dive: What We Can Learn From FEMA’s Sexual Harassment Crisis

Disturbing allegations, harassment in #MeToo, and what to do if you’re being harassed at work

The sexual harassment scandal 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the branch of the federal agency responsible for U.S. disaster relief, is embroiled in a massive sexual harassment case. The agency’s former personnel chief, Corey Coleman, who left his post just weeks ago, has been accused of harassing women for years, according to the Washington Post. Sexual harassment is defined as any behavior that makes a person uncomfortable in the workplace or social situations. This behavior can be of a sexual nature or may relate to the victim’s gender or sexual orientation.

Coleman has been accused of hiring women as potential sexual partners for his friends, as well as punishing or rewarding employees based on whether they followed his inappropriate demands. FEMA administrator Brock Long called the accusations “deeply disturbing.”

#MeToo and permissive workplace cultures 

A work culture that permits sexual harassment and misconduct in a large federal agency of this type, especially over a long period of time, is evidence of a deep-seated problem. The #MeToo movement has raised awareness of sexual harassment throughout the country, but it remains a challenge faced by many women in their workplaces.

Christine Pelosi, general counsel for We Said Enough (a #MeToo-based organization that serves as a digital platform and support group for sexual harassment survivors) tweeted: “This is horrible. Destroying careers of good people through sexual harassment. And while that is awful anywhere, it’s especially pernicious at #FEMA, which is tasked with looking out for people in their most vulnerable moments.”

Sexual harassment: far too common

While what happened at FEMA may be horrifying and extreme, sexual harassment happens every day in workplaces around the world. And although anyone can be sexually harassed at work, women are especially vulnerable — the ACLU estimates that anywhere between 25 to 85% of working women have experienced sexual harassment at work, with transgender women, low-income women, and women of color especially vulnerable.

Sexual harassment is pervasive, but it doesn’t have to be. Everyone can work to help prevent it. Make sure you know your company’s sexual harassment policies and complete all sexual harassment prevention trainings so that you can contribute to a positive work culture.

What to do if you're being harassed

If you are being sexually harassed at work, take these five steps to protect yourself:

  1. Keep a journal.  Document everything that happens in a journal so that if you choose to make a case to HR or a lawyer, you have a record  of incidents. Unfortunately, the burden of “proving” sexual harassment often falls on the victim.

  2. Screenshot inappropriate emails or messages. If you are being sent emails or messages of any kind, make sure to screenshot and save them so that you can share them with whomever you decide to report to. If you are being offered or given gifts, save those as well.

  3. Go to HR. If you have a record and you are ready to report, you can go to your company’s human resources department, and they should take corrective action. If  you are unsatisfied with the response from your company or even have to leave, you can look for a lawyer; sexual harassment hotlines can connect you to lawyers that will take your case pro  bono.

  4. Don’t be afraid to get help if you need it. It is important as a survivor of sexual harassment to get mental health services if you need them. Many cities have free or reduced counseling at women’s centers.  If you are ever considering self harm, call a suicide hotline.

  5. Remember: you are not to blame. The most important thing to remember is that sexual harassment is never the victim’s fault. You did not do anything to bring this behavior. It’s not your responsibility to make a harasser leave you alone. All people deserve workplaces that are free of harassment of any kind.

For more insights on the topic of sexual harassment and misconduct, see InHerSight’s sexual harassment articles. If you are being or have been harassed at work and want to share your story, leave an anonymous review of your workplace.

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By Casey O’Brien

Casey O'Brien is a journalist currently based in Oakland, California. She writes about environmental issues, feminism, travel, and politics, but most of her writing relates to social issues and problems. Her work can be found in various magazines, periodicals and websites. Her Instagram account is @littlequesadilla.

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