Women of the First State share their experiences with sexism

The national #MeToo movement hits close to home for entrepreneur Taylor Collins.

The co-owner of Parke Green Galleries in Dover hasn’t forgotten how “brutal” it was working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a male-dominated environment where sexual harassment was the norm.

“They’re hitting on you like you won’t believe. And they’re all married. And they knew you were married,” said Collins, 68, a former farm loan specialist.

She worked for the USDA in Delaware and Maryland from the late 1970s until retiring in the late 2000s.

In the 1970s through the late 1980s, sexual harassment training was virtually unheard of, Collins said. And women in her workplace suffered because of it.

She recalled an instance where harassment became the punchline of a joke during a retirement party. A male supervisor was roasted by his boss for having to pay a former female employee hush money.

“He just said he had to pay $50,000 to get rid of this one girl,” Collins said. “You just don’t bring up, basically your dirty laundry, at a retirement dinner.

“There are wives and spouses. There aren’t just employees at something like that. But it was common knowledge that this stuff happened. It was brutal.”

Although those payouts were supposed to be private personnel matters, Collins said she’s heard about four or five instances, through the rumor mill, where women were paid settlements of a similar amount by the USDA.

“You never knew the whole story, but you knew the person involved, and you just figured that had to be what it was,” she said.

Collins would complain all the time to her husband about the toxic work environment. But she felt she was damned if she said anything, and damned if she didn’t.

“He would say, ‘you should report it if you feel that badly about it,’” Collins said. “But if you report anything, you’re not going to win. They’re always to going win. And we saw that every time.”

The former loan specialist didn’t quit because she and her husband both worked to put their two kids through college.

Also, her work benefits outweighed her husband’s; and when he eventually became too sick to work because of multiple sclerosis, she stayed on the job longer as the family’s breadwinner.

“That’s what happens with a lot of us,” Collins said. “That’s why these women stay on these horrible jobs, because where are you going to go?”

In 2004, her husband lost his bout with MS.

Attorney shares insight

Employment attorney Barbara Stratton, of Knepper & Stratton law practice, said women suffer more from reporting harassment.

“Often I see the woman being transferred out of the department instead of the harasser,” said Stratton, who has offices in Wilmington, Newark and Dover.

The attorney said that raises a red flag as a form of retaliation against the employee, “because that’s unlawful as well, to retaliate against someone who’s complained.”

Stratton said there are two types of sexual harassment: verbal and physical. She said one off-color comment isn’t grounds for a sexual harassment case.

What does qualify, she said, is “little stuff that builds up over time, like we start asking you: do you have a boyfriend? Where do you guys like to go? What are your favorite sexual positions, and it goes from there.”

A physical situation, the attorney said, is “someone being physically accosted by their boss in the conference room. Or there was a case I had a long time ago of a boss exposing himself to an employee.”

Stratton said the process for addressing a harassment situation is to first find out what your employer’s harassment policy is. Then follow those steps internally to file a complaint.

If that doesn’t end the harassment, Stratton said, file a complaint of discrimination/harassment with the Delaware Department of Labor Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Over the years, the attorney has received numerous calls from women alleging they’ve experienced harassment at work. And usually the women have failed to file an internal complaint, she said.

“The reasons they do that are varied. But it usually boils down to fear of retaliation, either from the harasser or the employer,” the attorney said.

“In order to ultimately be successful in holding an employer liable for sexual harassment, the moral of the story is if it’s a co-worker, you basically have to prove that the employer knew or should’ve known about the harassment and failed to do anything to stop it.

“If it’s a supervisor, if they’ve taken certain actions against the employee by tangible employment action, it’s easier to hold an employer liable.”

Fellow employment attorney Daniel Herr, who runs the law firm Daniel C. Herr LLC in Wilmington, said filing a lawsuit against harassers is also an option.

If a person chooses that route, Herr said, they should understand that it can take time for their situation to be resolved.

“If it settles early and the individual is able to come to a deal with the opposite side to get whatever relief the parties agree is suitable,” Herr said, “that can take anywhere from a month to three or four years, if it has to be a knockdown, drag-out fight in court.”

In the end, Stratton said, it’s often disappointing that “the percentage of cases [where] the Delaware Department of Labor actually finds a violation of law is incredibly small.”

“From my perspective,” she said, “the frustration is I don’t think investigators always dig deep enough to really find out what happened. I recognize witnesses are often reluctant to speak. But that means investigators just have to dig a little bit harder.”

Closing the pay gap 

It’s a different ballgame when it comes to sexism, Stratton said. In those cases, all victims have to do is go to the Department of Labor and file a complaint.

If an employer asks a woman how much their salary was at their previous job, that’s one example of something that’s against the law.

In June, Gov. John Carney signed a law prohibiting employers from requesting salary history. Delaware is the first state to do this.

“All Delawareans should expect to be compensated equally for performing the same work,” the governor said at the time.

The average woman is paid 79 cents for every dollar earned by a male counterpart, according to a 2016 report by the United States Congress Joint Economic Committee.

Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long said gender inequality is an injustice.

“Women make up approximately 50 percent of the labor force. Yet they’re still only making like [79] cents,” she said.

Collins said she was underpaid during her career with the USDA. After nearly 30 years, she worked her way up to a GS-12 status, earning a salary of about $85,000. It only took her male counterparts about 10 or 12 years to arrive at the same classification, she said.

“My retirement is probably a good $20,000 or $30,000 less because I couldn’t advance when I wanted to,” Collins said. 

‘I wasn’t prepared’

Hall-Long, who’s was in the General Assembly starting in 2002, said she’s experienced discrimination as a woman in the male-dominated field of politics.

She’s heard, “‘Gosh, your children must suffer because you’re in politics.’ ‘You should be home.’ ‘Who’s at home cooking for them?’” Hall-Long said. “People don’t often ask men that question politically.”

Hall-Long still remembers what she heard from potential voters early in her political career.

“When I ran in 2000, the very first door that I knocked on, the comment to me was, ‘how nice you’re out campaigning for your husband,’ the Lt. Gov. said. “They automatically made an assumption that I was out door-knocking for my husband.

“I was probably speechless for a few seconds. I had not expected that because it actually was a woman who answered the door. I wasn’t prepared for that.”

The Lt. Gov. is optimistic the Delaware Department of Human Resources, established in July 2017, will help to prevent discrimination among state employees.

According to a statement from the governor’s office, the DDHR is intended “to help confront issues important to state employees and improve the delivery of human resources services. The agency’s priorities will include promoting diversity and inclusion across state government.”

On Jan. 10, the governor issued a statement confirming Saundra Ross Johnson as secretary of DDHR. 

Constitution needs an update

Collins said her work environment at the USDA improved when her male superiors began taking sexual harassment and diversity training.

Collins, however, said the ultimate key to gender equality (and other kinds) hinges on the Equal Rights Amendment.

The ERA is designed to guarantee equal rights for all citizens regardless of sex. It was passed by Congress March 22, 1972 and sent to the states for ratification. In order to be added to the Constitution, it needs legislatures in three-fourths (38) of the 50 states to approve it.

March 22, 2017, 45 years to the day after Congress passed the ERA, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify it.

The 14 states left are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.

Collins said it’s hard to believe that in the 21st century gender equality isn’t part of the Constitution.

“Until it’s actually in the Constitution that all men are equal and all women are equal, we’re not going to be equal,” she said. “We’re going to keep having these debates.”