I was harassed as a young intern, and this is one reason I am supporting the BE HEARD Act
By Star Carter
The year was 2002. I was a 19-year-old University of Texas undergrad gearing up for a promising summer internship and the start of a fulfilling career. Although I had work experience as a waitress, housekeeper, and cashier, this would be my first time working in a corporate setting. Sexual harassment at work was the last thing I expected.
Unfortunately, my excitement would soon be drowned out by an emotionally painful experience during my internship.
My supervisor, an older man, approached me privately one day, and aggressively asked about my bedroom behavior. I was caught so off guard, I just looked at him with a blank stare of disbelief. After a few seconds of awkward silence, pretending to know the answer, he responded to his own question in an equally inappropriate manner.
I gathered all the courage I could muster and with my racing heart, I told the supervisor that I was not going to tolerate this treatment, and that if he tried to harass me again, I would report him.
As a young intern starting out in her career trajectory and seeking out good mentors, I was crushed. I felt a sea of emotions – from guilt to shame, humiliation and much more. The experience affected me deeply, making it difficult for me to be my true self for months.
Thankfully, that man didn’t harass me again, but I was saddened to discover later that the perpetrator had harassed four more women, and was ultimately fired from the company for sexual harassment. I wish I had reported him years ago.
Sadly, my story is not unique. Despite much-deserved attention on sexual harassment instances in recent years through efforts like the #MeToo movement, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) continues to report devastating statistics of sexual harassment victims in the workplace.
In fact, the EEOC reported that at least one in four women experiences sexual harassment at work, but the vast majority of these victims – between 87% to 94% – never file a formal complaint, possibly due to fear of retaliation. The agency further reported that of those who do make the difficult decision to come forward, three in four face retaliation or a negative response from their employer.
Thankfully, a bill in Congress, the Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination in the Workplace (BE HEARD) Act, aims to close the gaps in workplace harassment policies and strengthen legal remedies available to the most vulnerable workers of our society – interns, waitresses, domestic workers and undocumented workers.
Sponsored by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and other Congress members, one of the biggest draws of the bill is that it seeks to protect all workers, not just some. Current laws allow for legal remedies in cases of employment discrimination against businesses with more than 15 employees. The bill would protect all employees and workers, regardless of the size of the business, as well as independent contractors and LGBTQ workers (who are not currently protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964).
My advocacy for diverse, inclusive and respectful workplaces increased after facing far too many discriminatory incidents during my career as an attorney. Having recently started a technology company to help foster inclusive workplace cultures, I am thrilled to see the BE HEARD Act empower employees harassed by supervisors to more easily seek legal remedies. A 2013 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court states that employees have a higher burden of proof in cases where their supervisors can’t fire them or demote them in retaliation. The BE HEARD Act would correct that ruling.
To ensure workplaces are free of harassment, the Act would also guide research and data collection on workplace harassment and further provide employers with tools such as policies, trainings, best practices and surveys to help address, expose and remedy harassment.
Perhaps if the BE HEARD Act or a similar law had been in place during my intern experience, I would have had the courage to speak up and be heard.
I hope one day that every work environment in America has zero tolerance for sexual harassment and discrimination simply because it is the right thing to do. Until then, the BE HEARD Act serves as a major step in the right direction.
Star Carter is COO and Co-founder of Kanarys, Inc., which helps companies foster diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace through the use of data and analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
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