This is an unprecedented moment for women — and women’s health. We are part of a sea change spurred by #MeToo, a seismic shift in what Americans will — and will no longer — tolerate.
The #MeToo movement has brought to light the proliferation of sexual harassment and violence. With it has come recognition of the toll they are taking in every corner of America — on our lives, our values, our economy.
During this National Women’s Health Week (May 13-May 19), let’s turn the #MeToo spotlight on the toll the insidious prevalence of harassment and violence against women takes on women’s health. As the body of research documenting the long-term impact on physical and mental health grows, one thing has become urgently clear: Workplace harassment — like violence against women — is a public health issue.
Connecting the Dots
Twenty-five years ago, in 1993, an early study called the “Consequences of and Coping with Sexual Harassment” found that survivors of workplace harassment often suffer not just psychological symptoms, but physical symptoms, including headaches and gastrointestinal disorders (Barbara Gutek, Mary P. Koss, 1993). That was two years after Anita Hill’s testimony focused public attention on workplace harassment and the abuse of power.
In 1995, a team led by Louise F. Fitzgerald published a study called “Antecedents and Consequences of Sexual Harassment in Organizations,” followed by a 1998 study that took a close look at sexual harassment in academia. It found “direct and indirect health effects, including nausea and sleeplessness, loss of self-esteem, fear and anger, feelings of helplessness and isolation, as well as nervousness and depression.”
One study led to another. In 2008, a study of union workers in Boston found a significant correlation between sexual harassment and elevated blood pressure.
A 2015 study led by epidemiologist Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani found that those who experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months had significantly higher odds of having experienced pain disorders within the past three months. These pain disorders included headaches, lower back pain and neck pain, as well as the prevalence of ulcers.
In the years since, researchers have delved even deeper, creating a body of research connecting workplace harassment to negative health outcomes. Among those making strides here is Dr. Rebecca Thurston, director of the Women’s Behavioral Health Laboratory and professor of Psychiatry, Psychology and Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh. In February, the Washington Post reported on one of her recent studies, which found that experiences such as sexual harassment can affect the cardiovascular system, leading to reduced heart and blood-vessel function.
Re-Visioning the Status Quo
American law categorizes sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the huge chasm between law and practice, between norms and outrage has created a hostile environment that is only now starting to change, creating environments where reactions to such behavior are swift, impacting status quo.
As our nation and institutions do the difficult work of recognizing — and responding to — how virulently pervasive sexual violence and harassment are, we applaud everyone who’s helped get us this far, including the brave women, upstanding men, whistleblowers, community leaders and — in the Jewish community — those lifting up #MeToo to #WeToo.
As scientists continue their much-needed research into the long-term health hazards of harassment — and how to help women stay healthy — our institutions and workplaces must take an active role in establishing clear protocols and comprehensive trainings.
During a recent mandatory staff training at our New York-based nonprofit, several asked thoughtful questions for clarity. This is why these trainings are so important — to help us understand our responsibilities, what’s appropriate and the protocols to respond to a complaint.
Every leader must check that the bodies they lead have protocols and processes in place — every employee can ask what they are. I know I did. In Lilith Magazine recently, editor Susan Weidman Schneider points out: “Nonprofit organizations, political campaigns, social justice movements and theater productions, among others, are at risk for creating an environment where the goals are so important, the work so heady, that those who suffer the heavy weight of misogyny or prejudice in such environments are prompted to silence their outrage for the greater good.” No one should have to pay this price.
Upstanders, Not Bystanders
Every woman — every person — has the right to work, volunteer and study in an atmosphere free of harassment and assault, places with clear and comprehensive policies, complaint procedures and disciplinary guidelines that will result in taking prompt and effective action to address and correct any incidents of sexual harassment and assault.
We must ensure the Violence Against Women Act is fully funded. Yet, we must do so much more. We need to extend the statutes of limitation to bring claims of sexual harassment and assault, as recent highly publicized trials have made jarringly clear. Together, we can advance these goals by helping to pass the Fair Employment Protection Act. JN
Janice Weinman is executive director and CEO of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which convenes the Coalition for Women’s Health Equity’s Women’s Health Empowerment Summit on May 16 in Washington, D.C.