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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Published Monday, April 16, 2018

For the better part of 19 years, I have spent my professional career working with the social problems in our community that most of us don’t like to talk about: child abuse and neglect, poverty, domestic violence and sexual violence.

Why don’t we like to talk about these things? They are personal; it could happen to us or has happened to us. As a society we don’t covet trauma. We tend to run in the opposite direction from it; ignoring its cost to lives, families and industry.

We live in a country where domestic violence costs us $8.3 billion a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Are you in business? Collectively your share in that $8.3 billion total is $1.8 billion.

You may be wondering, what does domestic violence have to do with sexual harassment in the workplace?

The bad news? Everything.

For a moment, I want us to let go of outdated beliefs about sexual harassment in the workplace. I want us to think about the fact that the same roots that make domestic violence such a pervasive social problem in our society are the same roots that make this type of workplace violence against individuals, primarily women, possible.

What are these roots? Power, control, intimidation and repression.

A victim of sexual harassment will often endure the same process of victimization as a victim of domestic violence: self-blame, shame and doubting self-worth, further exemplified by the fact that any attempt to address the harassment can be potentially met with loss of employment, opportunity for advancement and workplace equality.

The good news? We can change.

We are not going to change sexual harassment in the workplace through a video, policy manual or legislation. In fact, there is little research that suggests these things as stand-alone items actually work.

What can work? It is simple really: creating an environment where leadership addresses sexual harassment for the toxicity that it is and creating equal opportunities in the workplace, particularly for women. When we even the playing field, we create an opportunity where all individuals, regardless of gender, race and ethnicity, have equal access and value. This begins to shift the power-control paradigm.

A 2016 report issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on the study of sexual harassment in the workplace concluded that training programs should incorporate more than a “check marked item off of an employee orientation sheet,” and should be part of a prevention-based, company-wide strategy through multiple approaches. This includes increased focus on or implementation of bystander intervention training (how co-workers can intervene when they witness harassment), holistic approaches aimed at building capacity in prevention and authentic adoption by leadership.

In my current role as the leader of YWCA NH, one of the state’s oldest legacy nonprofit organizations dedicated to the empowerment and advancement of women, we have been fighting these critical issues for 97 years and will continue to do so. We began as an organization driven to create equal access leadership opportunities for women and girls in our community through a variety of enrichment and wellness programming. In the late 70s, we were able to tackle domestic and sexual violence head on as we launched crisis services, which is now our largest program. While the environment has changed for supporting victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence, the issues remain the same and, in fact, more critical than ever. In 2016, we served 2,800 individuals.

Together with our sister organizations that are part of the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, we can be a partner in your work to address sexual harassment in the workplace.

What does that partnership look like? Businesses can access professional development training for their staff offered by local crisis services programs as well as other support services, such as free and confidential crisis counseling for victims through walk-in services or the 24/7 confidential crisis line.

More importantly, it’s not just addressing the problem once there is one, but understanding that we can work together to prevent the problem from occurring in the first place through strategic organizational culture shifts.

It will take courage to shatter the silence sexual harassment cultivates.

It will take communities that come together, provide equal opportunities and say this type of behavior, oppression and violence has no place here.

The good news is together, through strategic partnerships with local crisis centers and culture shifts within organizations, we can work toward eliminating workplace sexual harassment in NH.

Jessica Sugrue is the CEO of YWCA NH and has more than 20 years of experience in working with at-risk populations in NH. She speaks on topics related to domestic violence, adverse childhood experiences, human development and organizational leadership. Over the years, she has contributed to various research projects, online blogs and articles related to the field of human services. In addition to her work with YWCA NH, she is an adjunct instructor for Southern NH University in the Social Sciences Program. For more information, visit

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