Op/Ed: Addressing gender inequality in today’s workforce so we won’t need to in the future

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By Michelle Kichline, Kathi Cozzone and Terence FarrellChester County Commissioners 

Week after week, we are met with more stories of sexual harassment; reports of women who have suffered because of the “power” of predators, but who now have voiced their horrendous experiences because of the courage of women who first shared their stories leading to the strength of the #MeToo movement.  One could argue that it was only a matter of time before the number of abusive incidents would build up, and that their size and velocity would force the secrets being kept by victims to pour through the floodgates. 

The voices may have begun in Hollywood and Washington DC, but quickly spread to women speaking out from both the private and public sector – corporations, businesses and political offices throughout the nation, including Harrisburg. Speaking out about this atrocious issue is good and right, but will it ever reduce, or even eliminate it?  Systemic change takes time and we may not see real systemic change in our generation, but speaking up will create opportunities for change now as well as changing the future as our children enter the “real world.” Every time one more person bravely speaks up, the #MeToo and subsequent #TimesUp movements become stronger and change takes hold.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Lean In, poses this question to young women: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”  Will young women take more opportunities to rise in a career without being afraid of the work environment?  Will they take more opportunities to talk about situations that make them uncomfortable?

What about young men who are entering the workforce? Will they be more aware of their actions and how they may be interpreted by their female work colleagues? Will they act in a more respectful way and refrain from using messages of inferiority that lead them to do and say what they want around women?

Not if current practices don’t change.  Not if business and political leaders do not take a definite stance on sexual harassment policies.  #MeToo shouldn’t just call upon the collective voices of victims.  #TimesUp should include actions that define boundaries in the many situations where professional personas become blurred with personal personas; that establish sexual harassment policies that are promoted to all staff and that are enforced.  In an area that is tainted by ambiguity, there can be clear directions and definitions applied to make the challenge of sexual harassment very clear.

For more than 20 years, Chester County Government has implemented a respectful workplace policy that has developed to include mandatory training at orientation of new employees, mandatory update training for all county employees, and this year, a mandatory class for all county managers that combines online training with personal group discussions.  Ongoing training helps to keep the issue top of mind, and in turn helps to avoid potential situations where harassment could occur.

There are other ways that we can prepare the women of today, and the young women who will be entering the workforce in the future, should they encounter unwanted sexual advances or threats.

Sheryl Sandberg also notes in her book: “The more women help one another, the more we help ourselves.  Acting like a coalition truly does produce results.  Any coalition of support must also include men, many who care about gender inequality as much as women do.”

So in Chester County, in the spirit of #MeToo and #TimesUp, we pledge to establish a coalition of support.

The Chester County Women’s Commission was founded 25 years ago to advance the diverse needs and interests of Chester County women and empower them to reach their personal and professional potential.  The organization’s vision is to serve as a catalyst for change by drawing on the passion, spirit and strengths of women to create a more equitable community.

We are charging our Women’s Commission to establish a coalition of support that will help to prepare women for the gender inequality they will inevitably face in the workforce.  This coalition will include women – and men – representing Chester County’s many companies, chambers of commerce, universities and non-profits.  It will work with organizations like Maternal & Child Health Consortium, Chester County Fund for Women and Girls, Wings for Success, the United Way of Chester County as well as the county’s universities and high schools to begin discussions and seminars that will help women who are currently working or will be starting their career in the near future.

We have a responsibility to help empower and educate young women and men who are in or entering the workforce, to prepare them to address the issues of inequality and of harassment.  It is an action that we believe will lead them to raise girls and boys to become more respectful of all members of their community.

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