Saint Mary's president shares story of sexual harassment, pay discrimination

 Jan Cervelli
Jan Cervelli (WNDU)
Published: May. 15, 2018 at 6:03 PM EDT
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Sexual harassment can have long-lasting and far-reaching effects.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports 25 percent of women say they’ve been sexually harassed at work. The actual number is believed to be much higher since sexual harassment is so widely underreported.

The #MeToo movement is making it easier for women to come forward and share their stories.

Jan Cervelli, president of Saint Mary’s College, is an accomplished educator and administrator. She's battled gender pay discrimination and sexual harassment while still working to advance her career.

Cervelli can sense a change in society.

“The stars are aligning. Now is our opportunity,” said Cervelli. “I could not be more excited than to see this movement happening now, because I’ve seen bits and pieces over the course of my career, but nothing like I’m seeing now.”

While much of today's attention is focused on entertainment and news professionals, academic institutions like Michigan State are in the headlines as well.

“When you look the other way as a leader and you think it’s going to just go away, it never does,” said Cervelli. “It just grows.”

Cervelli says this is a wakeup call to all universities.

“I've seen it from the student/faculty relationships, I’ve seen it faculty/faculty and I’m sorry to say I’ve seen it at the highest levels of institutions.”

She's experienced it too.

Cervelli was a rising star at the University of Arizona, Clemson, University of Kentucky and the United States Department of Agriculture.

She won't disclose where she was harassed, but she told WNDU’s Tricia Sloma it happened.

“I’ll have to say in some cases I felt very threatened to speak up and didn't for a while, and then when I realized that's not a very effective approach I began to speak up,” said Cervelli.

When Cervelli turned down romantic propositions from a high level colleague, she says her opportunities to advance seemed to disappear.

“There was just kind of a freezing of relationships and a distancing,” explained Cervelli. “And I think that prevented me from having openings for opportunities to have different leadership roles and those kinds of experiences that would have added to my resume.”

In those cases, Cervelli found other opportunities and moved on, often at an expense.

“Pay discrimination is real,” said Cervelli. “And I’ve experienced it.”

Other experiences were less direct, but still offensive.

At another university, Cervelli took part in a social gathering after a high level administrative meeting.

“During the course of this get-together, the general counsel of the institution was having a good time and said, 'I think we should have a contest where we vote on which woman on the cabinet has the biggest breasts,'" said Cervelli. “So this is the general counsel saying this? That just kind of freezes all the women, from one, enjoying the evening, but two, how do you bring a complaint about that when the general counsel is feeling free to make locker room jokes?”

“I hear about those kinds of comments more often than one would think,” said Jeanine Gozdecki, a partner with Barnes & Thornburg.

“Those circumstances, whether it's a business meeting or it’s a group of co-workers going out for a drink at a local bar after work,” said Gozdecki. “Those are areas where the rules of the workplace still apply.”

Although federal and state laws protect most workers, Gozdecki says it's up to employers to have clear, effective policies and train employees too.

“Employers have always had this responsibility to keep employees safe, and employers have generally had anti-harassment policies,” explained Gozdecki, “but the shift now is that we're paying more attention to them.”

Companies need to send a consistent message that sexual harassment is a behavior that won't be tolerated.

“Women in the workforce are coworkers. They are team members. They are not sexual opportunities or sexual objects,” said Gozdecki. “It's about culture. And that's why that respect needs to begin at the top.”

That's why President Cervelli is making sure that the women at Saint Mary’s are prepared and educated about sexual harassment in the workplace.

“Expect that this is going to happen so that they are empowered, they're not shocked and they know how to respond and react and to work through and to change the culture,” said Cervelli.

Saint Mary’s has been holding a series of workshops for students and the community.

“I really want our students to have that level of confidence going out, because that first step is often a very important one. It sets the stage later,” said Cervelli.

If you are struggling with a situation at work, you are encouraged to speak to your human resources department.

If you work for a small company that doesn't have an HR department, remember, you still have rights.

Step by step instructions for filing a complaint can be found by clicking on this link:

The next Sexual Harassment in the Workplace workshop at Saint Mary’s will be held on Monday, June 18. The topic for this session will be "Sexual Harassment: A Guide to Recovery and Empowerment." If you have a #MeToo story, you are encouraged to attend.

For registration, click here: