The findings of a survey given to government employees in Trenton to probe the prevalence of sexual harassment in the capital city found alarming results. 57% of those surveyed said they had experienced some degree of sexual harassment or assault, and often from elected officials.
The survey was run by the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, NJCASA, as part of an effort led by Sen. Loretta Weinberg to change the culture in Trenton.
“We landed with over 508 responses of people sharing both quantitative and qualitative data that I think really paints the true picture of how toxic this environment is,” said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of NJCASA. “It’s statistically proven in the data that we collected, 21% of the respondents said they never told anyone what they’ve experienced.”
Experiences ranging from inappropriate touching all the way to rape. In a panel discussion about the survey findings, a group of government-affiliated women shared some of their stories.
“A hug that lingers too long, a kiss on the cheek that’s just a little too close for my taste, literally, or a hand that slid down your back a little too far, or beyond,” shared Sabeen Masih, vice president of public affairs for Capital Impact Group.
But it’s not just sexual harassment that’s led to the toxic culture. Often, women are belittled or simply left out of the important conversations that often happen at the bar or on the golf course.
“It was someone who said, in the State House, men constantly pinch my cheeks and pat my head,” Teffenhart said.
“If I had a dollar for every time you were the only woman in the room, or someone said something that suggested you were beneath them, or they said something weird about my freckles,” said Katie Brennan, chief of staff for the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.
Councilwoman for Franklin Township Crystal Pruitt said, “There is these constant kind of micro-agressions, and it gets to the point where you start feeling gaslit. Right? Like you start wondering, ‘Wait, is this a big deal?'”
The panelists spoke about retaliation that often keeps women silent.
“Women know the retribution is real. I mean, either your face gets plastered all over the news, or there’s gossip in the halls of the Annex or the State House,” Masih.
They said often men get promoted after a problem, where women are demoted or let go. And while most violations go unreported, the survey found that even when women want to report, there’s nowhere for them to go.
“What often ends up happening is, someone brings forward a claim, there might not be even a formal process by which they could submit a claim, so it’s usually a phone call to someone in party leadership saying, ‘Hey this thing happened to me.’ And then the party scrambles to put a process in place. And that doesn’t serve anybody well,” Teffenhart continued.
One of the recommendations is to create a non-partisan, independent entity to receive and investigate complaints. One idea is to structure it as part of ELEC, the Election Law Enforcement Commission that’s already set up to oversee campaign finance contributions of both parties.
“This is something in their current structure would be way beyond their purview, but if we could really build their capacity to be an entity that could fulfill this role, as we’ve been investigating where this could possibly land, that seems to be the best fit,” Teffenhart said.
But the process will take time and resources which are in short supply these days.