JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO - RANDOLPH, Texas —
A select task force that studied harassment in the workplace in 2015 estimated that 60 percent of women experience sexual harassment – in ways ranging from unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion to sexually crude conduct and sexist comments.
The task force chosen by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, representing academia, employers and employees, concluded that workplace harassment remains a persistent problem and too often goes unreported, but it can be prevented through leadership and accountability.
Guided by Department of Defense Instruction 1020.03, “Harassment Prevention and Response in the Armed Forces,” the military branches are addressing the problem of sexual harassment through prevention measures and response procedures for their members to submit harassment complaints. It is a particular emphasis during April, Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
“We have sexual harassment issues in the Air Force, and progress is being made because we have more training and awareness on the subject,” said Maria Preda, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Equal Opportunity and Alternative Dispute Resolution manager. “In addition, commanders and other supervisors are taking a stand that it cannot be tolerated.”
DODI 1020.03 defines sexual harassment as conduct that “involves unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and deliberate or repeated offensive comments or gestures of a sexual nature” and “is so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person would perceive, and the victim does perceive, the environment as hostile or offensive.”
Sexual harassment is often misunderstood, Preda said.
“It’s not always of a sexual nature,” she said, referring to harassment based on gender. “It also doesn’t have to be physical.
“Emails in the workplace can have sexual innuendoes, and social media is a new element that has the potential for boundary issues based on content that may be inappropriately used or shared,” Preda said. “This can lead to harassment.”
Sexual harassment can also be nonverbal.
“An example is when someone stares at you and you feel you’re being undressed by that person,” she said.
Men can also be the victims of sexual harassment, Preda said.
“More men are being harassed – by other men or women – and more men have stepped out of the shadows,” she said.
When an incident perceived as sexual harassment occurs, it is important for the victim to report it quickly, Preda said. If not, it can lead to sexual assault.
“If you do not act, it keeps building and building until it leads to a full-blown situation,” she said. “As the saying goes, ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’”
One of the roadblocks in eliminating sexual harassment is a victim’s reluctance to report it, Preda said.
“Our office doesn’t process many allegations of sexual harassment, but that may be because incidents aren’t often reported,” she said.
“There are a number of reasons victims don’t come forward.”
Some victims blame themselves, while others fear their careers will suffer in some way – such as losing out on a temporary duty assignment or training that will advance their career, or even losing their job.
Fear of reprisal is often the case when the offending party is a supervisor, Preda said.
“Sexual harassment is about power,” she said. “It usually manifests itself through a supervisor, but it could be a co-worker, too.”
The victim is not the only party that needs to report sexual harassment, Preda said. A witness or anyone who is aware of the harassment should speak up.
“Everybody has to step up,” she said. “Until that happens, we won’t completely eliminate sexual harassment.”
Service members and civilians should report incidents to the commander, supervisor or equal opportunity office; service members can also confide in their first sergeants.
Supervisors have a huge responsibility,” Preda said. “They have to act swiftly on complaints.”
The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office at each JBSA location is yet another avenue for sexual harassment complaints.
“Our office doors are always open to anyone ever feeling as if they have been violated in any sexual nature,” said Bernadette Villa-Morris,
JBSA-Randolph victim advocate. “When in doubt, anyone can come to our office for assistance.”
Villa-Morris said her office assesses the situation based on the information the complainant provides and determines which agency should pursue the complaint.
“Once that is determined, our office would do a warm hand-off to the appropriate agency,” she said. “For sexual harassment it would be the EO office.”
Victims can also call the 24/7 Sexual Assault Crisis Hot Line at 210-808-7272 or the EO sexual harassment and discrimination hotline number at 1-888-231-4058.
The culture regarding sexual harassment is slowly changing, Preda said.
“There are generals who have been demoted or have resigned because they sexually harassed someone,” she said. “When general officers are held accountable, it sends a good message that no one is above the law.”
To change the culture, it is incumbent on everyone to speak up, Preda said. Sexual harassment can cause lasting psychological harm to a victim.
“If nobody speaks up, harassment will continue, and zero tolerance will continue to evade us,” she said. “It takes everybody to stop it. It begins with us.”