Panel is hopeful #MeToo will change the future of the workplace |

Panel is hopeful #MeToo will change the future of the workplace

Erik Strindberg, an attorney who has been working in employment law for more than 30 years, answers questions asked by moderator Renai Bodley Miller during the Project for Deeper Understanding on May 17. He said that fewer women call him asking, "Can you help me?" and instead ask, "Will you help me?"
Carolyn Webber/Park Record

Nearly one in every three women in Utah has been sexually assaulted, and one in six has reported being raped, which are some of the highest statistics in the country according to the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice report. The #MeToo movement that proliferated across the country in recent months empowered women to share their stories of sexual assault, but now people are wondering what needs to happen next to help eradicate sexual violence.

On May 19, a Park City Project for Deeper Understanding panel discussed what #MeToo means for individuals, particularly for employers and employees in the workforce, and how the movement will continue to change the culture of what is acceptable behavior. About 20 community members attended the event, which took place at the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Michael O’Brien, an attorney who specializes in employment law, served as a panelist and said that he has handled sexual assault cases in the workplace for decades. Since dozens of individuals in power started being accused of sexual misconduct, such as film producer Harvey Weinstein and former U.S. gymnastics coach Larry Nassar, the amount of sexual harassment trainings he does for businesses has increased dramatically. He said that has completed about 100 training programs in the last six months about how to create a workplace culture where sexual assault does not take place.

He, like the other six panelists, believes that #MeToo will be a movement that will change the future of interactions between men and women both inside and outside a working environment. The other panelists were Robynn Scribner, a researcher and writer for the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah Valley University; Marina Gomberg, a columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune; Eric Strindberg, an attorney who represents employees in sexual harassment cases; Kendra Wyckoff, executive director of the Peace House; Jacob Jobe, a teacher at Park City High School; and Liza Simpson, a longtime resident of Park City and former two-term City Council member.

Jobe said that there is still a lot of work that needs to occur to create a cultural shift away from sexual violence, but he is confident that the younger generation will help make it happen.

“If we are going to create change in a movement, the people that move through the system have to commit to the changes happening and be able to push through where there are bumps and road blocks,” he said.

He said one area for improvement is to teach youth at a young age to ask and give consent to touch one another.

Gomberg agreed.

“We have to teach people how to treat us,” she said.

Simpson said the next step is to not only believe individuals who come forward and report sexual assault, but also to step forward and say something in the moment if they see or hear someone acting inappropriately.

O’Brien and Strindberg said that it is critical for all businesses, including small ones, to have policies in place for a respectful workplace and know how to respond when a situation arises. Scribner said that there are online resources available for small businesses if they do not have the funds to pay for legal advice.

There also need to be some changes to policies for small businesses in order to protect employees, Strindberg said.

Some of Utah’s laws make it difficult for employees to bring a sexual assault case against a business smaller than 15 employees, which Strindberg said is a law that he would like to see changed.

Many sexual assault cases take place when there is an imbalance of power, such as a supervisor acting inappropriately toward an employee. Simpson, who worked in the food and beverage industry, said that major power imbalances tend to exist in industries where employees are working for tips or a minimum wage and their supervisors have a lot of authority over them.

Debbie Williams, who attended the event, experienced sexual harassment throughout her career in the entertainment industry. She said that she had heard countless stories of women being harassed in the workplace. When women complained, many women replied by saying, “This is the way it is.”

But she is hopeful that through community conversations like the Project for Deeper Understanding, change will happen.

“It is good that there is talk and it is good that there are discussions like this,” she said. “It has to happen.”

Following the event, Wyckoff said that education, policies and more funding for resources are some of the things that need to take place in order to see change, but that it has to be addressed from multiple sectors.

“Whether it is sexual assault or domestic violence, it truly takes a community response to address these issues,” she said. “It can’t be one particular stream or profession that addresses the issue. As a community we have to come together and have a coordinated response.”

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