Guest Opinions

Idaho legislator: Move beyond sexual harassment training to create equality in the workplace

Women march against sexual assault and harassment at a #MeToo march in Hollywood on Nov. 12.
Women march against sexual assault and harassment at a #MeToo march in Hollywood on Nov. 12. AP

America is in the midst of a full-blown crisis brought on by a groundswell of sexual harassment claims. Consequently, many workplaces are revisiting or incorporating sexual harassment training, including Congress and many State Legislatures. I have added my name to a bipartisan letter calling for mandatory sexual harassment training in the Idaho Statehouse.

I am hopeful we will reflect on this moment and see it as an opportunity to improve the systems that have limited opportunity to so many talented people, so many talented women, and create a new vision of equality in our nation.

While sexual harassment training is a welcome start to addressing the problem women have faced for decades, we must incorporate this training into a larger system of policies to assess the conditions that foster this kind of behavior in workplaces and schools in the first place. Consider the long-term effects of being told you don’t matter as much, your work isn’t valued as much, your experience doesn’t matter as much, and there is only one way to get ahead. This state of affairs limits opportunities, tamps down talent, and eventually tamps down your spirit.

Sexual harassment, like sexual assault, is about power and control. Everyone has the right to feel safe at work, in their home, at school and on the streets. Everyone has the right to learn or earn a living and provide for their families in an environment free from harassment and abuse. These fundamental principles must inform our understanding of how to tackle this problem.

I have worked with survivors of sexual violence for many years, and the most troubling attitudes I have confronted are victim-blaming statements that contribute to conditions where women aren’t believed. Lack of belief and shaming prevents crime victims from reporting and keeps perpetrators safe to continue their abuse.

Systematic disbelief also hurts distribution of resources to victims and survivors. For example, working on legislation for the 2018 Legislative session to support sexual assault survivors, I learned that Idaho is billing private insurance for sexual assault forensic exams. These exams are crime-fighting tools used to hold perpetrators accountable. Can you imagine if your homeowner’s insurance got billed for a fingerprinting kit used to investigate a home burglary? You would throw a fit. So why are we charging victims of sexual assault to pay for something to catch the alleged perpetrator?

As we tackle these issues, we must ask some important questions: who is missing from the conversation and what do we do as we move forward. What are the experiences of workers in minimum-wage jobs who are struggling to make ends meet? What about the waitresses, clerks and maids who feel they cannot — or should not — report incidents of abuse for fear of losing a badly needed job?

We must promote talent and ability wherever we find it — not hold it back. Incorporating sexual harassment training into our workplaces is one more step in publicly denouncing sexism and violence toward women. Let’s reflect and move forward mindfully and creatively to forge a better future for everyone.

Rep. Melissa Wintrow is in her second term in the Idaho House of Representatives. She represents District 19 in Boise.