Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) joined panelists for a conversation on workplace sexual harassment and encouraged the audience to embrace policies benefiting women in a talk hosted by Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations on Monday.
“I believe fundamentally that we should care about one another. Sexual assault and harassment come from a place where that principle simply does not exist,” Gillibrand said.
Calling a culture where power and fear keep sexual harassment in the shadows “fundamentally toxic to an organization,” Gillibrand emphasized the need for wage equality, paid leave and an end to sexual harassment.
These changes, according to Gillibrand, should begin in Congress.
“This stops when we value all people. When we value women or men who are harassed. When we listen. When we believe them. When we create a system where justice is actually possible. My job is to lift up their voices,” Gillibrand said.
The senator seeks bipartisan support to outlaw taxpayer-funded settlements on issues of harassment, to allow survivors to decide whether or not to publicly disclose allegations and to end forced arbitration clauses in workplace agreements.
Under forced arbitration, employees must disclose company grievances at an in-office hearing under rules of nondisclosure and often waive their right to a constitutional trial.
“It’s wrong that just by signing an employee agreement you sign away your right to a jury trial,” Gillibrand said, while in conversation with President Martha E. Pollack, following her speech.
Pollack, alongside a diverse group of Cornell professors and professionals, joined the discussion as panelists after Gillibrand’s opening remarks. The panelists — Mark E. Brossman, Alexander Colvin, Prof. Lisa Nishii, human resource studies, and Christine Pambianchi ’90 — took up Gillibrand’s cause against forced arbitration.
According to Colvin, Cornell’s associate dean for academic affairs, forced arbitration is a common clause in the paperwork most employees sign on their first day of work.
“These agreements between an entity and an employee create a power imbalance at the hearing,” said Pambianchi, senior vice president of human resources of the technology company Corning Incorporated.
Beyond the legality of sexual harassment policies and best practices provided by Brossman, a partner at the law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel, the panelists also shared personal anecdotes.
“I graduated here in 1990 and embarrassingly, having spent four years in the ILR school, I didn’t take a single class on women in the workplace,” Pambianchi said. “I thought that was all fixed in the sixties … when I went to work at 21 years old, I realized that wasn’t the case. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Nishii, an associate professor in the ILR school, gave an academic reading on the state of affairs by citing the effects of ingrained power imbalances and the significance of gender harassment in addition to sexual mistreatment.
With increasing workforce diversity, along with social media activism and legal action, the panelists hope and believe that future employees will witness change.
“We now have a generation of leaders in very senior levels of companies who have daughters entering the workforce. We didn’t have this before,” said Pambianchi. “There’s this sudden awareness in which very senior male executives have well-educated daughters with firsthand experience of workplace harassment. There’s much greater engagement on the issues.”
When the lecture hall opened up for audience questions, one attendee took to the microphone. Pastor Michael-Vincent Crea ’78, who had stood and wore a “Me too both of you never responded ‘F’” sign while Pollack and Gillibrand spoke, voiced his grievances on a sexual harassment experience of his own.
“What good are our laws if we do not create a system of justice that puts people instead of property, privilege and corporations first?” he asked.
After the event, Crea got into a heated argument with representatives from the Cornell University Police Department outside the auditorium. CUPD investigator Stanley Slovik issued him a persona non grata, prohibiting him from returning to the Cornell campus.
“People are free to express their opinions, it’s part of a topic that is this heated and controversial. I wish it wasn’t as disruptive to the event, but I certainly respect their opinion,” Tom Addonizio, assistant dean of communications and marketing for the ILR school, told The Sun after the event.
Following the talk, the ILR school held a panel featuring Brossman, lawyer Diane Rosen and Cornell vice president and chief human resources officer Mary Opperman, who offered advice and insight to students looking for employment.
“I think it’s a really important moment in time,” Rosen told The Sun. “There’s a lot of focus and attention on the issue of harassment in the workplace, and it’s an opportunity to share with students what it means to be out in the workplace and to help you have the tools to navigate your own jobs.”
“Most females are harassed at work at some point in their career,” Brossman said. As a soon-to-be college graduate who will enter the workforce, ILR student Dania Alvarez ’18 found Brossman’s statistics on sexual harassment in the workforce “very impactful.”
Alvarez also expressed her interest in the panel for its “useful advice, especially now that it’s not to say that harassment hasn’t happened in the past, but that it’s more in the spotlight.”
“Part of what I would encourage as you go into your workplace is learn as much as you can before you need any of these resources, to know what your resources are,” Opperman said, “so that if you need them early, you know where to go to find them and have those conversations so that you remain empowered.”
Shruti Juneja ’20 contributed reporting to this article.