Editor’s Note: Jennifer Klein is the chief strategy and policy officer at TIME’S UP Now, an organization fighting for safe, fair and dignified work for women of all kinds. Gretchen Carlson is a journalist, author and was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People In The World in 2017 for exposing a culture of sexual harassment that ran rampant at FOX News. The views expressed here are those of the authors. Read more opinion on CNN.
Zero. That’s the number of times presidential candidates have been asked during debates what policies they support to end the epidemic of sexual harassment in America.
Yet sexual harassment significantly damages the lives, health, and economic security of those who are victimized by it. According to a 2016 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as many as 85% of women will experience sexual harassment over the course of their careers, and women of color, immigrant women, and women with low incomes are particularly vulnerable to workplace abuse. Often, these are the women who have to put food on the table, and so they stay silent. These are the women who are one paycheck away from poverty, and so they stay silent. These are the women who don’t have an HR department to report to, and so they stay silent.
But the damage from being sexually harassed isn’t just physical and mental – it’s economic. A recent study found that women who are sexually harassed are six times as likely to change jobs, often leading to lower pay in less desirable positions.
This is the first presidential cycle since the #metoo hashtag went viral, when millions of people have witnessed a tidal wave of women coming forward with their stories. From the kitchens of fast-food restaurants to the halls of Congress, it’s evident that no industry is immune from the scourge of sexual harassment.
If ever there was a time for policies to address sexual harassment to take center stage in an election, it is now. Combating sexual harassment is something the next occupant of the White House will have enormous power to address – or to ignore.
Candidates can start by supporting policies that make it easier for workers to come forward when they’re being harassed at work. The EEOC estimates that some 70% of all workplace harassment incidents go unreported – and when employees do speak up, they often face some form of retaliation. Stronger worker protections can aid workers who come forward, particularly if those workers have low incomes or are undocumented.
Gaps in our civil rights laws leave huge groups of workers, most of them women with low incomes, outside of the legal protections that most workers can expect when they’re harassed on the job. Candidates can support federal legislation like the BE HEARD Act, which would include contractors, small business workers, and domestic workers under civil rights laws and make sure all workers are protected from discrimination and harassment. Today, the prohibition against employment discrimination under the Civil Rights Act only applies to businesses with more than 15 employees, leaving millions of people unprotected.
Candidates can also support legislation that one of us has championed in testimony before Congress to ensure that survivors of harassment, abuse and retaliation have the option to pursue claims in open court if they wish. Today, forced arbitration prevents far too many survivors from seeking justice, and too many perpetrators from being held accountable. Under the secrecy of forced arbitration, victims who come forward are routinely blacklisted, demoted or fired, while perpetrators stay on the job without consequences because their illegal behavior is never exposed.
And they can make it clear in our laws that sexual harassment is never okay by eliminating the stringent “severe or pervasive” standard for sexual harassment – a standard that keeps all but the most egregious claims of sexual harassment out of court.
Finally, at a time of unprecedented state-level action and activism on sexual harassment, candidates can draw a contrast with the Trump administration, which has slashed an Obama-era rule that prevented companies from forcing employees into arbitration when they’re sexually harassed or assaulted at work. That means more employees can be forced into silence about what happened to them, rather than being able to seek justice in open court if they wish.
But not if they are not asked where they stand – which is why today’s political reporters should do better than their predecessors to press candidates on what policies they would support to address this issue. Shockingly, the only instances when sexual harassment was asked about during the 2016 presidential debates were when male candidates were asked whether Hillary Clinton should be held responsible for her husband’s sexual misconduct. It’s simply unacceptable that this pressing policy issue has never been seriously considered on a presidential debate stage, or on the campaign trail.
Sexual harassment is a systemic problem, one deeply ingrained in the unequal gender and racial power dynamics found in nearly every industry of our economy. Systemic problems demand systemic solutions – and voters expect all 2020 presidential candidates to have robust plans to address this pervasive issue. In fact, research from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation shows that half of voters say they won’t vote for a presidential candidate who doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously.
The next president will hold an enormous amount of power in the epic fight to end sexual harassment in America – and we want to hear their plan.
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No longer can women’s lives be sidelined as niche issues. We’re counting on moderators to do something truly historic and finally ask candidates about their plans for addressing sexual harassment at work. Voters have been waiting long enough for answers, and as the events of the past two years show – we’re not going to wait any longer.