A Long Way To Go: NJCASA Releases Report on Sexual Harassment in New Jersey Politics

This month the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NJCASA) released its report, “It’s Everywhere, It’s Everything: The Report of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 2020 Survey on Misogyny & Sexual Misconduct in New Jersey Politics.” The report publishes survey results received from employees within New Jersey’s political sphere regarding their experiences of sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace. It also makes recommendations for improving workplace culture around sexual harassment and misconduct, including increased education and training, the development of transparent, predictable reporting processes, and the creation of a culture of accountability in NJ politics.

IMG_4994-300x168Survey respondents held a variety of positions within state politics, including advocates and activists, state government employees, campaign staffers, lobbyists, partisan political operatives, staffers to elected officials, those holding elected office themselves, legislature employees, and county and municipal government employees. The largest reporting groups were advocates and activists (16%), state government employees (13%), campaign staffers (13%) and partisan political operatives (13%). The vast majority of respondents were white (85%), non-immigrant (94%), heterosexual (81%), cisgender (79%), highly-educated (89%) women (78%). As the report acknowledges, this means that this particular study provides a window into the sexual harassment and misconduct experienced and witnessed by a highly privileged group, and indicates that despite holding such privilege, these respondents were often without the proper resources to prevent, report, or obtain justice in the face of harassment and misconduct in the workplace. The report stressed the importance of interpreting the results as framed and informed by one specific type of woman.

It comes as no surprise that most survey participants (57%) reported having either experienced and/or witnessed sexual harassment and misconduct during their work in NJ politics, and that women are far more often the targets of this misconduct and more likely to report it than men. By occupation, 75% of county government employees reported experiencing harassment, and 77% of campaign staffers and 76% of lobbyists reported witnessing it. When defining the specific types of harassment encountered, verbal remarks and misogynistic comments were the most frequently reported and combined make up 45% of the total. Three percent of respondents reported having been raped. State government employees reported that misogyny is “very prevalent” in their workplaces.

When asked who was doing the harassing, a high percentage of responders indicated that often the perpetrator is an elected official. That finding held true whether the victim was an employee in the political sphere or an elected official themselves. Elected officials were most likely to report being harassed by other elected officials. State government employees were most likely to report being harassed by their colleagues within state government. In fact, most survey participants reported being harassed by their peers or a superior who was not their direct boss. A combined 73% of harassment incidents were reported as having happened either in the workplace or at a work event outside the office where attendance was required or expected.

When it comes to the government’s response to reports of sexual harassment and misconduct at work, the NJCASA report paints a grim picture. Of those who filed formal complaints, half of them reported the misconduct to their human resources department or upper management. The results were disappointing. Fifty-six percent of respondents were either “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with their employer’s resultant actions. Of the employees who reported their harassment to a government agency (27%) the majority were “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied” with the results (63%) and a large portion were “very dissatisfied” (28%). Of those who did not report their harassment at all, the reasons they gave for remaining silent were largely related to fear of retaliation for speaking out, the belief that reporting the misconduct would do no good, and fear of public backlash.

The survey also called upon participants to predict what they would do if they experienced or witnessed sexual misconduct at work and then juxtaposed those predictions against what was actually reported. While only 6% predicted that they would remain silent in response to witnessing misconduct, 26% of those who reported actually having witnessed it did in fact do nothing about it. While 19% of people predicted they would report the misconduct, only 9% actually did. Potentially contributing to these gaps are lack of bystander training and education, and lack of knowledge about how to report sexual misconduct. In fact, the majority of workers in the state political sphere don’t know how to report harassment, regardless of whether the harasser is within their own organization or another political actor outside of it. The only exception was employees of the Legislature, where 55% knew how to file reports of harassment regardless of the harasser’s occupation.

NJCASA makes several recommendations to improve the current state of misogyny in NJ politics. Specifically, the organization calls for: (1) rigorous training and education, (2) structural systemic supports, and (3) cultivating a culture of change and accountability. NJCASA proposes education and training should focus on teaching a broader definition of sexual harassment and sexual violence, so that employees can readily identify it when they witness or experience it. Rather than limiting the definition to sexual assault and forcible touching, participants must know how to identify the behaviors that create a hostile work environment, such as sexual jokes and comments, the routine sidelining of women that prevents them from becoming fully integrated into the political realm, and the labeling of those who speak out about misconduct as difficult or overly-sensitive. Bystander training should be followed up by employers and supervisors modeling appropriate behavior and creating a workplace that empowers people to speak up. Education must also include how to respond when a colleague discloses harassment, such as having mandatory reporting protocols and clear definitions of what will be kept confidential so the process can be predictable and transparent. NJCASA found that the more centralized and structured a profession is within NJ politics, the more success they tend to have disseminating knowledge around reporting procedures. In the more decentralized professions, such as lobbying and activism, they suggest hosting events where this type of training can be offered.

In calling for more clearly defined structure and support across political occupations, NJCASA notes that the decentralized nature of many of these professions exposes them to a lack of official human resources professionals, and therefore a system where decisions are allowed to be made on a case-by-case basis. A centralized, independent reporting body can eliminate the unwanted practice of making it up as we go, especially in local and municipal government and the more fluid political professions. Complaints should be handled uniformly throughout the state and always taken seriously. The creation of statewide, non-partisan reporting and investigation entities would help toward that end. NJCASA also recommends a bifurcated response model, where victims of misconduct could choose to either make an informal complaint, which would be handled by a single investigator with a focus on modifying the perpetrator’s behavior, or a formal complaint, which would be more appropriately handled by separate and distinct role-players to minimize undue influence in and across investigation, response recommendation, and discipline administration.

This report and its recommendations come on the heels of a major victory for survivors of workplace sexual assault. In May, our employment attorneys assisted Katie Brennan, a former campaign staffer for Governor Murphy, in reaching a settlement with the campaign that will result in positive changes to the way the State conducts investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Following the settlement, Ms. Brennan reminded us all that we have a long way to go in our efforts to create lasting change in NJ political culture. She stated, “These conversations so often focus on the victims and the perpetrators, when really we need to talk about everyone else that’s involved that doesn’t take responsibility. Systems and culture are people. Victims, perpetrators, those in positions of power–all of us. We are all accountable for ending sexual violence.”

Workers in NJ’s political sphere who are able to speak out for change, advocates and attorneys working to hold accountable those guilty of sexual misconduct, and organizations such as NJCASA working tirelessly to shine light on these problems and potential solutions, will eventually create a change in NJ political culture – one that will lead us closer to safety, equity and accountability.

For the full report and survey results, please view here. New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault [NJCASA]. (2020). It’s Everywhere, It’s Everything: The Report of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 2020 Survey on Misogyny & Sexual Misconduct in New Jersey Politics. Lawrenceville, NJ: New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

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