A friendly heads up that this blog post contains a discussion of #MeToo, which could be triggering.
I’ve started and stopped writing this post for you about five times in the last week. Witnessing all of the #MeToo posts on social media and the discussion about broader issues of sexual harassment and assault has been emotionally exhausting. And for that reason, I considered not writing this email to you.
But. . . but, it’s an issue that is too important for me not to talk about given our sector’s and industry’s conversations about gender inequality.
One question that has been on my mind the last week is – What does #MeToo mean for women in fundraising and really all women working in the non-profit sector?
In our work context, I see this as a call to arms to make our work environments safer for women.
Of course, the most direct interpretation is making offices safer for women. To me, that means having clear, transparent reporting processes in place for sexual harassment and assault.
But what about the other work environments that we find ourselves in that are not our offices where we should be concerned about safety?
Conferences are the first thing that comes to mind. They can be like the international waters of a work environment because they are outside of the physical office space and can do whatever they like.
I bring this up because of my own experience at a conference back in 2015.
At this conference, one of the facilitators used the session to talk about how when people make mistakes, they should be welcomed back into community. His reason for choosing this topic was self-serving. He disclosed that he sexually harassed women at this same conference the year before and was essentially forcing everyone to welcome him back.
Unfortunately, the conference organizers did not know 1) that this had happened and 2) that he was going to use this moment to essentially give himself a second chance without any consultation with the conference organizers or the broader community.
As an attendee, I immediately felt unsafe. My whole body tensed up and was like that for the remaining two days of the conference. I resented that I was involuntarily put in this environment and that there was no way for me to easily leave because we were at a retreat center.
Then, of course, there were the women who were harmed by this facilitator, who were in the audience (and some who were not in the audience) and had no idea that this was going to be publicly aired!
What happened at this conference in 2015 was problematic (for oh so many reasons), and it brought to light a larger issue. This conference had no clear, transparent policies in place for people to report sexual harassment.
This meant that non-profits who may have clear internal policies for this unintentionally put staff in unsafe environments where the policies were not consistent with the organization’s.
I bring this up because as staff, it’s not just the office environment where we have to be concerned about our safety and the safety of those around us.
Conferences like NTC have a clear code of conduct and reporting process (you can view it here). However, neither the Bridge Conference nor AFP International appears to have anything publicly available for conference attendees. The problem with having no policies in place is that it 1) makes the mistake of assuming people will “know what to do” is something happens and 2) it further disempowers victims of harassment.
If you are a manager or ED, I want to encourage you to check out the conferences that you send your staff to. Make sure there are good policies in place that will keep your staff safe.
If you volunteer on a conference organizing committee, I urge you to bring this discussion to the table and advocate for open, transparent policies. Don’t let the someone dissuade you by saying that because this is a professional conference, these kinds of things won’t happen. That is false.
If you are a conference attendee, exercise your agency to attend conferences that are doing their best to create safe environments for women. Ask conference organizers to share their policies publicly and use part of the opening sessions to make sure all attendees know about the policies.
This is the hard work we all must do to create safer work environments for everyone.