Lauri Hennessey: Her #MeToo Journey
“Sexual harassment is strangely taboo. We say we have evolved, but women are still discouraged from calling it out when it happens. And we don’t feel comfortable talking about it afterwards. I was involved in a sexual harassment scandal involving a US senator. And I am finally talking about it. Talking about it is something we all need to do more.” –Lauri Hennessey
On Thursday, March 31st, the Women's Commission was proud to host a Humanities Washington event in which Lauri Hennessey, CEO of the League of Education Voters in Washington State, shared her #MeToo story. Participants attended in person and virtually to hear her speak out about sexual harassment.
While serving as a young press secretary to Senator Bob Packwood in the early 90’s, Lauri experienced unwanted physical contact and romantic attention from the senator she had considered a father figure and mentor. At the time, her rejection of his advances ended his attempts, and she continued working for him.
However, years later, Packwood and his staff would launch an aggressive campaign to destroy Hennessey’s reputation and keep her from helping Washington Post reporters expose Packwood’s history of sexually harassment. At the time, Lauri contributed to the story anonymously, but is now ready to be identified publicly.
Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, told Vox, “‘Part of what sexual harassment is, is an expression of power and expression of hostility.’”
In an intimate evening with a group of commissioners, staff, and guests, Lauri shared how her experience with sexual harassment and Packwood’s attempts to silence her shaped her view of gender and power dynamics, the impact it had on her career and her well-being, and how it has informed a desire to see change in a system designed to protect powerful abusers.
Though women have been facing sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination since time immemorial, it has only been in the past three decades that sexual harassment been a matter of public discussion.
Beginning with Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas in 1991, and in the years since with the organization of the #MeToo movement by Tarana Burke and its rise to the mainstream in 2017, survivors have been courageously sharing their stories to engage the public in a deeper reckoning about how common this form of abuse is, and its impact on survivors' lives.
According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:
- An employee must submit to the behavior to keep their job or to get a promotion, a good job assignment or some other job benefit; or
- The behavior unreasonably interferes with work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment. (MRSC.org)
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates that 81% of women in the US experience sexual harassment in their lifetime.
And though sexual harassment is experienced and reported by individuals of all genders across virtually all industries, women workers are particularly vulnerable to harassment in many industries. This is particularly true in male-dominated industries, service-based industries, and industries in which workers are paid low wages and afforded few worker protections — such as farm workers, hotel workers, and gig workers — where workers lack economic and organizational power.
However, despite its prevalence, harassment is largely underreported. The EEOC, responsible for processing the sexual harassment complaints that do get reported, released a comprehensive study in 2016 that noted that "unwanted physical touching was formally reported only 8% of the time; and sexually coercive behavior was reported by only 30% of the women who experienced it. … Studies have found that 6% to 13% of individuals who experience harassment file a formal complaint. That means that, on average, anywhere from 87% to 94% of individuals did not file a formal complaint."
A host of factors may be at play in the underreporting of sexual harassment. Employees who experience harassment often avoid reporting harassing behavior due to fears of retaliation, job loss, that others will not believe them, that no action will be taken, or that they will be blamed for their experience.
Some may fear that a defamation suit may be filed against them or may wish to avoid legal proceedings, or they may be legally prohibited by non-disclosure clauses or mandatory arbitration from speaking up. Some may wish to avoid reliving the trauma.
These are all fears based on a wealth of historical evidence. When Anita Hill testified, she was faced with the disbelief, biased scrutiny, and victim-blaming of the all-male, all-White Judiciary Committee. The #MeToo movement exposed the widespread use of non-disclosure agreements in the entertainment industry to silence women for years. In their report, the EEOC cited a 2003 study which found that about 75% of employees who did speak out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation.
However, the #MeToo movement has provided a space and platform for women and survivors to feel less alone in their lived experience with sexual harassment. With solidarity and collective power in numbers, survivors are now shifting long-held narratives that have contributed to the acceptance of sexual harassment and assault in this country. Now, the public is turning its attention toward holding perpetrators accountable and to dismantling the structures that continue to protect them.
In her testimony, Lauri Hennessey wondered how the times have changed, and what protections are afforded to women now that were not present when she was facing harassment from Senator Packwood.
The #MeToo movement started by Tarana Burke in 2006 has not only changed the ways the general public understands the relationship between gender and power, but it has begun a series of systemic, organizational, and interpersonal changes to better recognize and support survivors.
In the immediate aftermath of #MeToo reaching the mainstream, states such as California, New York, and New Jersey enacted laws banning the use of non-disclosure agreements to limit an employee’s ability sexual assault, harassment, or sex discrimination.
Washington State was one of those states — in 2018, it passed four new laws intended to protect victims of sexual assault in the workplace, including barring the use of non-disclosure agreements in instances of sexual assault and banning employers from requiring employees to resolve workplace disputes such as harassment claims through mandatory, private dispute resolution.
States are also beginning to expand sexual harassment laws to protect workers previously left out of existing sexual harassment law, including independent contractors, those self-employed, and domestic and farm workers — disproportionately women of color earning low wages.
Industries and systems are also undertaking organizational reforms to improve the workplace, including Congress. Bystander intervention trainings are also becoming more prevalent, creating systems of support within workplaces to prevent and intervene in harassment.
Additionally, because sexual harassment lawsuits are often prohibitively expensive, organizations like the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund are helping survivors of harassment and sexual misconduct, especially workers making low wages, get legal representation. And some survivors are even receiving financial restitution, as in the case of the athletes who stood up against USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.
The EEOC also found in their report that increased awareness and definitions for sexual harassment have led to increased reporting. In their report, they noted that the number of survivors who identified personal experiences of sexual or gender harassment grew when acts of sexual harassment were more specifically defined.
In their survey, when survivors were asked only if they had experienced sexual harassment at work, without the term being more explicitly defined, only one in four survivors reported having experienced some form of harassment. But when specific examples of sexual harassment were mentioned, 60% of women surveyed reported having experienced some form of sexual or gender harassment.
According to Vox, this indicates “a lack of societal clarity around what constitutes harassment in the workplaces – and what is brushed off as just uncomfortable encounters.”
As Lauri Hennessey shared in her testimony, there is a range of behaviors and comments, sometimes under the guise of friendliness, that can create feelings of discomfort that survivors may often hesitate or fail to identify as harassment. Therefore, it is imperative for all employees, particularly women and those vulnerable to harassment and assault, to be aware of what it constitutes and what options they have for legal recourse.
Sexual harassment is against the law and a violation of Title VII, and victims have a right to safety and legal recourse.
Washington State laws against discrimination in employment can be found under Ch. 49.60 RCW. They prohibit sex and gender-based discrimination in employment, which includes sexual harassment. Under this law, individuals may file a lawsuit in state court or file a complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission.
RCW 49.60.180 establishes the legal right for an employee to sue their employer for hostile work environment, sexual harassment, quid pro quo sexual harassment, and disparate treatment based upon gender.
We would like to extend our deepest thanks to Lauri Hennessey for joining us and sharing her story, and to Humanities Washington for co-hosting this event. Lauri’s courage prompted participants at the event to share their own stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, which informed a discussion about what still needs to change.
The Washington State Women’s Commission will continue to amplify voices of victims of sexual harassment to ensure our state has policies in place to support and protect them, and continue to drive shifts in cultural narratives and practices to create more equitable and safe workplaces for all women and workers.
Learn more about Lauri Hennessey:
- Read about her background, career, and current roles at the League of Education Voters website
- Tune into the League of Education Voters podcast, ‘Washington Game Changers with Lauri Hennessey’
- Read the original article in the Washington Post
Learn more about your rights and what you can do if experiencing sexual harassment:
- Working Washington — Resource Page: Sexual Harassment & Assault in the Workplace
- Northwest Women’s Law Center — Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
- Washington State Office of the Attorney General — Sexual Harassment Law: A Guide for Employees in Washington State
- National Partnership for Women & Families — Know Your Rights: Witnessing Sexual Harassment at Work
- Equal Rights Advocates — Know Your Rights At Work: Sexual Harassment
- AAUW — Know Your Rights: Workplace Sexual Harassment
Learn more about prevalence of sexual harassment, its costs and impact, and efforts to combat it:
- Institute for Women’s Policy Research — Sexual Harassment and Assault at Work: Understanding the Costs
- National Women’s Law Center — #MeTooWhatNext: Strengthening Workplace Sexual Harassment Protections and Accountability
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace Report
- ACLU — Dismantling Sexual Harassment
- ACLU — Where Does #MeToo Start?
- ACLU — Who is at Highest Risk of Sexual Harassment?
- Vox — Study finds 75 percent of workplace harassment victims experienced retaliation when they spoke up
- Vox — 7 Positive Changes That Have Come from the #MeToo Movement
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