Sexual harassment dominates news cycles in 2017

Workplace sexual harassment stories are much like a volcano. Resistance by women and men started slowly, much like steam escaping in visible puffs.

First came the he said/she saids.

Anita Hill’s allegations against Clarence Thomas did not block his confirmation as a U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1991 but probably would today.

U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., resigned in 1995 after 25 years of sexual harassment, which was widely known and ignored by Oregon news media.

Accusations against entertainer Bill Cosby and President Donald Trump have gone back for decades, but Cosby’s first trial ended in a mistrial and he’s awaiting a new trial in 2018. Nineteen women have leveled sexual harassment allegations against Trump.

Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein’s time was 2017, when the lava rushed out of the volcano, destroying everything in its path.

This makes workplace sexual harassment my pick for the top national story in the United States.

On Oct. 5, The New York Times revealed allegations reaching back 30 years against Weinstein. Equally stunning allegations spread widely, taking down popular media figures such as Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer.

The list of accused seemed to grow daily. Some lost their jobs; some resigned.

Men in Congress and state legislatures are resigning to avoid the humiliation or the gift of handing their political enemies devastating materials to kill any re-election chances.

In Nevada, former state Sen. Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, resigned. U.S. Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., is hanging on with denials at odds with his tweets. But he said he won’t run again.

Now it’s in the business arena. Boardroom executives are taking notice and taking action against workplace sexual harassers.

And the lava flow doesn’t seem to be slowing.

No one can tell whether the rush of firings for those accused will stop sexual harassment. It must make for a frightening existence for men who have indulged for years and now wonder whether they’ve left a trail of proof. Incriminating emails. Implicating cellphone photos. Women who told others, so it’s no longer strictly she said/he denied.

Dr. Marianne LaFrance, a Yale University psychology professor, wrote a Dec. 3 column in The Wall Street Journal based on fascinating research published in 2001. She studied two groups of undergraduates to see their reaction to three clearly inappropriate questions woven in during job interviews.

Ladies, stop and think what you would do or say if asked these questions during a job interview.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“Do people find you desirable?”

“Do you think people should be required to wear bras at work?”

One group of 197 undergraduates were told to imagine themselves in a job interview.

A separate group of 25 women was interviewed by a man in his 30s for what they believed was a real job interview.

The women who knew it was not a real interview showed little fear and considerable anger, LaFrance found.

“No one in the actual interview refused to answer a question, left the interview midstream or tried to report the interviewer to his supervisor,” she wrote.

Her research summary: Imagined victims anticipated feeling angry, but actual targets reported fear. Anticipated behavior did not mesh with actual behavior.

If silence means feeding your family and having a place to live, harassed women are likelier to remain silent.

Whether 2017 becomes a historical turning point in workplace sexual harassment will remain speculation until time passes and historians look at the long haul. It may take years before we discover whether firing harassers of women and men makes a difference or is just a short-term response.

I hope women’s insistence that this must stop and the naming of names is a game-changer, but I am not absolutely positive it will be.

LaFrance is not planning such a study so far, but I’d love to know what the responses to her research would be today and then 10 years from today.

While I hope 2017 is a turning point for social change regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, any workplace, there is no guarantee. Sometimes lava ends up in the ocean, losing its steam.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column runs Sundays in the Nevada section. Contact her at jane@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0275. Follow @janeannmorrison on Twitter.

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