Sexual harassment has been the subject of ongoing discussion at Harvard over the past few months. This topic has been covered on the pages of The Crimson, debated in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, talked about in offices and classrooms, and been the subject of a study by the University. One thing has become clear to a number of Harvard employees; protection from sexual harassment (defined as any unwanted sexual attention) for Harvard staff members is at best a polite fiction. In the study that was done on the subject, in the debate in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and on the pages of the Harvard Gazette, another thing has become clear. The needs of staff women on this issue have not been addressed, and will not be addressed unless we do it ourselves.
As things stand now, a woman staff member who has been sexually harassed on the job is completely alone, with almost no recourse or support. Confronted with the economic necessity of not risking the loss of her job, she is extremely vulnerable to continued harassment. The existing channels are disparate, unwieldy, and ultimately ineffective. While these may seem like serious charges against the nation's most prestigious university, the experiences of many employees who have tried to use Harvard's "grievance procedure" have shown this to be true.
We are pleased to see the discussions that are happening now. The suggested guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment are a step in the right direction, but they are only a step. They recognize the problem as being an institutional, and not an individual, problem. But these guidelines do not offer any real suggestions for changing the way staff women deal with unwanted sexual attention. They simply state what is already, in effect, Harvard's employee "grievance procedure"--a procedure that is ill-suited for dealing with most employee problems, especially those of such a sensitive nature. The only alternative offered is for the woman to go directly to the office of the General Counsel, the person who would represent the University if she decided to take it to court.
The first step in the existing procedure requires a woman who is being harassed to first discuss this problem with her immediate supervisor. In many cases her supervisor is the one who is harassing her in the first place, so this step is impractical for dealing with sexual harassment. In the second step, a meeting is set up with the employee, the personnel representative, the Office of the General Council, and the dean's office of the school where the incident took place. There is no structure that provides an advocate to help the employee prepare and present her case, or to give her the support she needs to go up against three representatives of the University with an issue that is so personal and difficult to talk about. Women who have been harassed often feel guilty and embarrassed. It is hard enough to talk about, let alone deal with, in isolation.
The next step, if the harassment is not dealt with at the first two levels, is for the decision to go a panel that again is stacked in the administration's favor. Few employee grievances are ever heard on this level since most people get discouraged long before they make it that far.
This whole process can take many months and much physical and emotional energy. In the mean-time there is no provision to move the employee to another position, away from the person who is harassing her.
Since the system offers no support, an employee who has been sexually harassed is totally isolated. Someone who has been sexually harassed already feels isolated and humiliated. With no support, the employee is likely to quit her job, which she cannot afford to lose, rather than going through the process alone and trying to keep her job. The other problem is that if the employee does not have the strength and courage to fight it out alone, the system is stacked against her. Even if she "wins" and the three-member panel rules in her favor, there is nothing that forces the administration to abide by its decision. As with most "in house" appeals procedures, it meets the needs of the employer, and not the employee.
We as staff women have to work together to find a better solution than the one Harvard officers, one that offers support and encouragement to break the isolation, and one that is fair and impartial. The best way for this to happen is through the unity and strength that comes with a union contract and a grievance procedure with binding third-party arbitration.
Many union contracts have language that provides for accelerated relief for an employee who is being harassed. Rather than waiting for the grievance procedure to reach a conclusion, the employee who is being harassed is moved to another job with no loss of seniority, wages, or benefits while her case is being decided. Binding arbitration also means that the administration has to follow through on whatever is agreed, unlike Harvard's current process which has no enforcement provisions. Simply stated, any policy without enforcement is completely meaningless.
The grievance procedure also heads problems off before they become serious. An employee who feels she is being harassed is more likely to deal with a problem early on if she feels she has the support and backing she needs. Also, harassment is less likely to occur in the first place if a strong process is in place to deal with it.
For us the solution is clear. We can protect our-selves best. When you look at an issue like sexual harassment--or other issues like salary, benefits, and basic dignity and democracy on the job--nothing makes more sense than the employees coming together and solving their problems. We have been working with the UAW to do just that. The UAW has 50 years of experience in helping workers win their rights. Through unionization we can acquire the basic tools of self-protection: a legally binding contract, an impartial accelerated grievance procedure, and the knowledge that no woman has to face this issue alone again.