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Preventing Sexual Harassment and Promoting Gender Equity: 5 Ways to Get Started

February 21, 2019

This piece was first published in  Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The #MeToo movement propelled issues of sexual harassment and assault to the fore, fueled by a wave of allegations against well-known names in entertainment, media, and sports. Calls for punitive action — legislative, financial, and legal — have brought down many prominent individuals. Despite these well-publicized consequences, each fresh news report of an incident reminds us that long-term systemic change is not on the horizon.

At Community Resource Exchange, a nonprofit that provides consulting services to social-welfare organizations, we have seen an uptick in requests for guidance on how to prevent and address sexual harassment and assault.

This is a promising development because it shows groups are thinking seriously about how these issues affect their staff members and their communities. Yet nonprofits and their staff members remain at risk because the negative actions of one person can expose organizational weaknesses that often lead to power imbalances and disparities in how people are treated.

As nonprofit staff members interact with donors, volunteers, board members, staff, and clients, they deserve a safe and welcoming environment. That should be true for all gender identities and racial backgrounds in all aspects of their jobs.

Some groups are putting policies and practices in place to protect employees. Participants in a recent CRE panel cited steps they are taking: anti harassment training for all staff, advanced training for managers, and creating a safe workplace in which reporting sexual harassment is supported. One key way to create safe workplaces is to develop policies that outline multiple ways to report a complaint in case a staff member doesn’t feel comfortable confiding in a manager.

Here are five initial steps leaders should take to help prevent sexual harassment and assault and create a safe environment for staff.

1. Focus on workplace culture, not just compliance. Having policies about sexual harassment and race and gender equity are necessary and important, but they do not fully address the day-to-day dynamics of how people interact. Leaders need to create a culture where people feel safe speaking up, where they know there will be no retribution for doing so.

Changing organizational culture requires four factors:

  • Commitment from leaders.
  • Reinforcement of culture through appropriate procedures and policies.
  • Education and training for all staff.
  • The fostering of awareness and understanding of why this matters.

Organizations that rely on policies alone, without shifting culture, are not as successful in combating these issues over the long term. You need both.

2. Identify and address disparities that exacerbate gender inequity. Pay particular attention to the experiences of women of color and transgender women because addressing disparities for those who experience more than one form of bias can create solutions that work for all. Efforts that ignore women of color, transgender individuals, and gender-nonbinary people run the risk of only supporting white cisgender women — that is, white women whose preferred gender identity corresponds with their sex at birth.

3. Diversify your leadership team and board. Include women of color, transgender, and gender nonbinary people at the most senior levels of your organization. Three organizations whose leaders spoke on our panel, Violence Intervention Program, the Anti-Violence Project, and Girls for Gender Equity, have ensured there are leadership pathways for women and people of color in their organizations.

4. Strengthen accountability. Ensure that policies strike a balance between the needs of the victims and the rights of the accused. Policies should include documenting and understanding all reported experiences, mandatory staff training, and further training for supervisors. Further, acknowledge that executive leaders and the board are ultimately responsible for any type of harassment, assault, or underlying inequity at the organization. Set policy, and communicate it widely and often.

5. Invest in human resources. This is critical, even when you have a limited budget and lack a formal HR department. Having qualified, trained, and empathetic people directing HR processes is vital to ensuring that your organization moves beyond compliance with labor laws toward an equitable and supportive environment for all employees.

Nonprofits must dig deeper and implement institutional change to reach the real, lasting change that equity can bring.

By President and Chief Executive Officer Katie Leonberger