What the #MeToo movement means to the suburban workforce

Just over a year ago, high-profile allegations of sexual harassment set off the #MeToo movement. Since then, the commotion has disrupted and changed workplaces across the country.

Dozens of allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein exposed the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace and sparked a tough conversation about abuse and assault in offices, factories and schools.

And since then, the headline-grabbing moments have included the firings of media and Hollywood heavyweights like Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and Kevin Spacey. In the meantime, suburban companies say they have addressed the issue in their own ways with improvements in training and education. Companies have helped employees understand what sexual harassment is and what it is not under the law. Businesses are examining thier policies.

The Daily Herald Business Ledger recently honored 20 local woman business leaders. We asked them what the #MeToo movement means to them and to the workplace.

After all, the numbers are real. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said recently that preliminary data showed sexual harassment complaints filed with it this fiscal year rose by more than 12 percent as compared to that same period in 2017. Additionally, sexual harassment claims were part of 41 lawsuits brought by the EEOC during this fiscal year, a more than 50 percent increase in legal actions addressing that type of abuse as compared to the previous fiscal year.

Here is what local influential women have to say about the movement and what it means to business and the workplace.

Erin Brooks

Executive Director, District 214 Education Foundation, Arlington Heights

“It is never OK for anyone — regardless of gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation or any other piece of who they are — to feel threatened, violated or unsafe in a workplace. It is imperative that we build businesses that support success, universal respect and acceptance. The #MeToo movement has highlighted the need for speaking up when something is wrong and speaking the truth, while also showing all of us that we do have a voice.

This movement has brought to light some terrible things; it has shown us how bad things can be; it has created political and workplace debates that have both united and divided individuals. I have been blessed over the course of my professional career to work with colleagues and for bosses — male and female — who have treated me as equals and consistently challenged me to be a better person and push myself further, believing in me more than I believed in myself. I have had great mentors who saw in me potential that I didn't see. Now more than ever, I recognize this as a gift, and believe it is why I so love the work I do.”

Catherine M. Tojaga

President of CT Mechanical, Addison

“I honestly wish I had the answer. This is such a complicated issue, and right now, we are just in awareness mode.

It is invaluable that people are becoming more vocal and shedding light on this problem and we need professionals to help us business owners on how to best navigate the situation. I just know that we cannot dismiss anyone who has a claim.

It cannot be swept under the rug and it must be dealt with. It is just that each case is so different that there is no cookie cutter way to do it.”

Laura Newman

Batavia city administrator

“#MeToo has revealed that this behavior still exists in today's workplace. People think just because there are laws that prohibit such behavior and policies addressing it that it just doesn't happen anymore.

I'm proud of those who have been brave enough to share their stories so that people, and especially men, are aware of the scourge of unwanted sexual advances. We need to provide a workplace culture that makes women feel safe to bring their concerns forward and where warranted, punishes those who abuse their positions of power in this manner.”

Andrea Biwer

Executive director, Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce & Industry

“The Me Too Movement has brought heightened awareness to the entire topic of how we treat one another in the workplace and beyond.

It provided an educational opportunity that stressed sensitivity, understanding boundaries, and appropriate ways of acting and reacting.

Most of all, it helped the business community focus on roles and responsibilities that lead to comfort and success for everyone in the workplace.”

Dr. Anuja Gupta

Partner with Aman Living, Hanover Park

“I believe the #MeToo movement has created an excellent platform for women-empowerment. Especially in the workplace, with such great gender disparity women are already disadvantaged creating more opportunity for abuse.

Speaking up is a real form of empowerment and the #MeToo movement is to be lauded for its critical role in this.”

Michelle Damico

CEO of Michelle Damico Communications, Lincolnshire

“The most important outcome of #MeToo is that women should feel more empowered to speak out, because their claims will no longer be summarily dismissed.

The #MeToo movement has made all of us — employers and business owners — understand the devastating impact harassment has on people's lives, long after an event occurred. So many companies had a knee-jerk reaction to the terrible stories in the news by offering workshops or webinars on how to report, spot, or prevent harassment and behaviors that could lead to sexual assault.

But a one-time class is not going to address behaviors that have been taught to some people since childhood. The #MeToo movement will only succeed when society addresses the fact that the problems reported by victims stemmed from bad parenting, adult predators, or those who simply looked the other way.

I don't have the confidence that this topic will ever go away, sadly. Especially in the current political climate, when the public elects leaders who brag about their sexual exploits and openly insult and demean women.”

Amy Toepper

CEO of Legal in a Box, Naperville

“As an attorney who practices in the area of business and employment law, I have always been keenly aware and tuned into the issue of harassment and discrimination in the workplace. It takes many forms — whether it be disparity in wages, advancement, hiring or termination.

The end result is the same, though. Improperly making business decisions or harassing an employee based on that individual's immutable characteristics — race, age, religion, national origin or sex — is illegal. The #MeToo brings to the surface that the discrimination and the harassment, unfortunately, continues. However, the more light that can be shed on the problem and the more we can educate and train people to stop it is crucial.

Let's use the movement as an opportunity to bring people together rather than divide. It is our mutual responsibility as human beings that we should create safe and thriving work environments. It benefits everyone.”

Jennifer Friedland

Managing partner, Momkus, Lisle

“My hope is that the #MeToo movement has created an environment where victims feel empowered and fear no repercussion for reporting misconduct, and that appropriate investigations are conducted as a result thereof.”

Adria Meehan Siewert

Vice president, Wealth Enhancement Group, Itasca

“I believe equality for all is extremely important. As a woman in a male dominated industry, I feel that I have as great of an opportunity as anyone to achieve success. ... My experience has been positive, so I feel that at times the #MeToo movement may operate at a greater extreme than the general reality some of us feel in the workplace.

That being said, I certainly support correcting areas and abuses that exist for any sex, race, or religious sectors of our population.”

Susan Beth

COO, NRD Capital Management, Downers Grove

“I really wish I had the amazing 'sound bite' on this topic, but I do not. I think the abuses and very unfortunate circumstances that so many have faced while trying to earn a living, challenge themselves and hone their craft is tragic.

It truly stinks. I believe the #MeToo movement has brought an awareness to these circumstances and has helped to put all of us on notice that we need to conduct ourselves with greater sensitivity.”

Linda S. Fine

Attorney, co-chair of the Estate Planning and Estate Settlement Groups

Kelleher & Buckley, North Barrington

“I believe that everyone should have equal opportunities to succeed in business and that a strong work-life balance is important. I am lucky to work for a firm that equally supports and encourages women and all of our teammates to thrive.”

20 local leaders honored as Influential Women in Business

Images: 2018 Influential Women in Business Awards

2018 Influential Women in Business honorees

Laura Newman
Andrea Biwer
Anuja Gupta
Michelle Damico
Amy M. Toepper
Jennifer Friedland
Adria Meehan Siewert
Susan Beth
Linda Fine
FILE - In this Nov. 12, 2017 file photo, participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. No matter what ultimately happens to Brett Kavanaugh and the women who accuse the Supreme Court nominee of sexual misconduct, the Senate hearing on the allegations will offer a historic test of the #MeToo movement, which began only a year ago. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
MeToo hashtag on note book with coffee cup, top view on wooden pine table background. Flat lay design. As part of anti sexual harassment and assault social media internet campaign protests
Catherine Tojaga
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