Half of isle adults claim sexual harassment, survey finds
Nearly half of adults have experienced sexual harassment while working in Hawaii, a new statewide survey suggests.
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Nearly half of adults have experienced sexual harassment while working in Hawaii, a new statewide survey suggests. And while women reported being harassed more than men, the disparity isn’t as great as one might think. Some 52% of women reported being harassed, compared with 42% of men.
The first-of-its-kind survey in Hawaii defined sexual harassment to include behaviors such as whistling or leering in an aggressive way, making comments like, “Hey, hottie,” and using derogatory, sexist slurs. It also included touching someone in a sexual way, forcing them to perform a sexual act or implying that they had to perform a sexual act in order to obtain a promotion or avoid being fired.
The survey of more than 600 Hawaii residents, which has a margin of error of about 4%, was conducted by SMS Research for Safe Spaces and Workplaces. The organization grew out of a collaboration between Karen Tan, president of Child and Family Service, and Rachael Wong, the former director of the state Department of Human Services whose accusation of sexual harassment against Joe Souki played a key role in pushing the former speaker of the state House of Representatives to resign last year.
Wong said the survey was meant to establish a base line on sexual harassment in Hawaii workplaces and is part of a larger strategy of engaging employers and working to transform workplace culture.
Wong said she was disappointed that after sharing her story about Souki, more women didn’t speak out about sexual harassment, and she hopes that the work of Safe Spaces and Workplaces will help transform Hawaii’s culture of silence. Wong was one of several women to accuse Souki of sexual harassment but the only one to share her story publicly.
“I was very naive thinking the #MeToo movement has spread across the country and the world, and I thought the door had opened,” she said. “I had done this for Hawaii for a better future. Everything that I had done was to keep paving the pathway for others to be able to feel safe enough to come forward to talk about their experiences, and my naivete was that none of those women and not many since have felt safe enough to come forward — not in a public way.”
The survey found that most victims of sexual harassment don’t report it. Just 18% of those surveyed who had been harassed said they told human resources, and only 9% filed an official complaint.
The survey also found that perpetrators are most often co-workers, though respondents also reported being harassed by strangers who had entered their workplace and clients or customers. About 22% of victims said they were harassed by a boss or someone who wielded authority over their position.
The highest rates of sexual harassment were reported in the manufacturing and technology sectors.
Those surveyed also found that while sexual
harassment most commonly occurred in the workplace, it also happened at work dinners and pau hanas and over phone and text.
It’s hard to draw conclusions on how Hawaii compares nationally when it comes to workplace sexual harassment. A recent national survey found a rate of 27%, much lower than Hawaii’s, but the methodologies of the surveys differed.
Makana Risser Chai, an attorney who assisted with the study and has spent 30 years working with employers on issues of sexual harassment, said she was surprised at how many respondents reported being sexually harassed in Hawaii, including men. She said a positive of the survey is that rates of sexual harassment were lower in organizations that had training programs and where employees felt that management took harassment seriously.
She noted that sometimes the person doesn’t realize that their behavior is wrong or making the other person uncomfortable.
“I make a distinction between those who are deliberate and those who are unthinking,” said Chai. “The deliberate ones, they’re predators. But the unthinking ones may have done something their whole lives and no one ever said anything to them. So we can’t really blame them for not knowing.
“One of the things we want to do in creating Safe Spaces and Workplaces is make it safe for men and women to talk with each other and express their feelings and listen to each other so that they can learn from each other.”
Part of the problem is that victims don’t know how to speak up when they feel they are being sexually harassed, the survey found. Respondents reported feeling too embarrassed or ashamed. Others said they weren’t sure whether it was serious enough to report or that maybe it was just meant to be a joke.
It also can be hard to know how to react at the time the harassment is occurring. That was the case for one Hawaii nonprofit executive who requested that her name not be used. During an evening work function, a colleague seated next to her kept squeezing her thigh. Not wanting to make a scene — she had just been publicly acknowledged, and high school students were seated at the table — she remained silent until he stopped.
“It calls upon all your senses of conflict, right, and then I’m not quick on my feet, so I’m just sitting there and thinking, ‘Did he just do that?’” she said. “And he sat right next to me the remainder of the dinner and made small chitchat. Did it scar me? Probably not. If anything, it just irritated me. It angered me that he caught me in a vulnerable moment and I didn’t respond in a way that I would have wanted to defend myself.”
Nicole Velasco, a former director for the city, said she also has experienced and witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace. She said employers need to do a better job of knowing how to handle it.
“As a community that claims to prioritize aloha, we are quite inept at hearing stories of victims,” she said. “To me, that has been the biggest irony: We talk about live aloha, be pono, and yet we struggle to believe victims and know our collective roles to make these situations better. It has to be a kakou (collective) thing.”