Hundreds of women gather downtown to launch statewide policy agenda

Hundreds of women gather downtown to launch statewide policy agenda

February 10th, 2018 by Joan McClane in Local Regional News
Beverly Watts, director of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission

Beverly Watts, director of the Tennessee Human Rights...

Photo by Theresa Montgomery

HOW TO FILE

To file a sexual harassment complaint, go to the Tennessee Human Rights Commission website at https://www.tn.gov/humanrights.html

GET INVOLVED

If you want to get involved with the Mayor’s Council for Women, go to https://connect.chattanooga.gov/councilforwomen/ and submit a form to participate. There are working groups looking at economic opportunity, education, history, justice, health and leadership.

Sexual harassment claims are rippling across the nation as the #MeToo movement continues to gain steam, but the momentum hasn't quite reached Tennessee, said Beverly Watts, who heads the Tennessee Human Rights Commission and was among speakers addressing hundreds of women Friday at the Mayor's Council for Women's statewide women's policy conference.

Watts, who oversees the division of state government responsible for investigating workplace sexual harassment complaints, said she expected to see calls increase in recent months, but they haven't. Most women are still afraid to speak out against their employers, she said.

Southern culture, which emphasizes traditional roles for women, might be a challenging hurdle for the #MeToo movement, she said, but a bigger hurdle is the power differential most women face in the workplace.

"People are still very afraid to come forward," she told her audience at the Westin Hotel.

Most cases taken on by the Human Rights Commission involve women earning between $20,000 and $60,000 a year. Women working minimum wage often feel powerless in the face of sexual harassment, Watts said, and the #MeToo movement, which has been a great platform for more powerful women, has not given confidence to working-class women who often are struggling to support children and fear retribution.

Another huge challenge is a state law mandating that all complaints, investigations, settlements and penalties be kept confidential. When companies and managers are found to have violated sexual harassment laws, they are never publically named. Other states, however, have adopted a completely transparent process, and in those states the threat of a public shaming encourages companies to take the threat of sexual harassment much more seriously, said Watts, who has worked in states with and without confidentiality.

Still, Watts said, she doesn't expect that state law will change, since women are a small minority in the Tennessee Legislature.

It's issues such as this that drew more than 380 attendees to Friday's event, said Carol Berz, a Chattanooga City Council member and chairwoman of the women's policy conference.

Women need to be supporting women, said Berz, who said she wants to see laws regulating the payday loan industry changed, since the high interest rates that come with most of those loans disproportionately affect working-class women in Chattanooga. Last year the Mayor's Council for Women released a study on the issue.

If women don't band together and advocate for themselves and get more women elected, Tennessee will never improve its status as one of the worst states in the country for women, she said.

After comparing data on employment and earnings, poverty and opportunity, health and well-being, violence and safety, reproductive rights and political participation, the Institute for Women's Policy Research ranked Tennessee 49th in the U.S., tying it with Kentucky. Only Alabama and Mississippi fared worse in the data analysis.

"Women need to take responsibility for the policies affecting their lives," Berz said after the conference. "The issues affecting women are neither Democratic nor Republican. They are human. That is why I am excited about the energy and momentum coming out of this conference."

Throughout the day a diverse mix of women, who came from all across the state to learn, network and plan, attended sessions on topics ranging from sexual harassment and workplace bias to human trafficking. Childcare was provided, and a few venders set up to sell shoes and flowers.

Stephanie Rose Bacon, a 34-year-old student at Southern Adventist University, said she came away with a lot of lessons. The event motivated her to stay connected with other professional women, she said, but it also encouraged her to get involved with work that aims to change policies that negatively impact Tennessee women. For example, she wants to help get more women elected.

"It is absolutely necessary," she said. "To get more gender equality we have to."

At the conference wrapup, the group members were asked to contribute their thoughts on a statewide agenda. The results will be published in a report which will be released mid-March.

In the meantime, the Women's Fund of Greater Chattanooga, which participated in the women's policy conference, just released its legislative agenda.

Emily O'Donnell, executive director of the women's fund, said the group will be pushing several bills in Nashville this year:

-HB3272/SB1488 — This bill lengthens the voter registration period to 15 days before an election instead of 30 days before an election.

-HB1984/SB2130 — This bill allows a contract employee to bring a sexual harassment action against the entity to which the person is under contract in certain situations.

-HB1904/SB1863 — This bill forbids discrimination by an employer on the basis of sex by paying any employee a wage rate less than that paid to any employee of the opposite sex for comparable work, performance, skill and responsibility in similar working conditions.

-HB1861/SB1769 — This bill establishes employment protections for people who are victims of domestic abuse or sexual assault to attend court, meet with law enforcement, attend counseling, or find new housing.

-HB1985/SB2092 — This bill prohibits public employers from discriminating against applicants and employees with pregnancy-related conditions by not providing them with reasonable accommodations.

-HB2164/SB1510 — This bill requires instruction on the detection, intervention, prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse as part of a family life curriculum, and it extends immunity from a cause of action to instructors or organizations providing such instruction.

-HB1506/SB1491 — This bill enacts the "Infant Mortality Reduction Program Act," which creates a program for the distribution of baby boxes, which provide a safe place to sleep, to parents at the birth of their child.

-HB2627/SB2185 — This bill requires all health benefit plans to provide coverage for contraception and other women's preventive health services.

-HB1961/SB1949 — In accordance with the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention as issued by the office of the U.S. surgeon general, this bill forms and implements the recommended state-based suicide mortality reviews to institute the systemic changes needed to decrease suicide mortality.

-HB2521/SB2548 — This bill restricts marriage to persons 16 years of age or older by removing age waivers for marriage certificates.

Contact Joan McClane at jmcclane@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6601.


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