For women who inhabit the often punishing universe of New Jersey politics, how they compete for jobs, build relationships and seek office is at times an exercise similar to three-dimensional chess.
Sabeen Masih, a vice president in her lobbying firm, said she gives a lot of thought to her clothes and makeup because they been the focal point of conversation. She is keenly aware that if she takes her husband to a work gathering, most will assume he is the lobbyist and talk to him first. And her outgoing demeanor can backfire if she’s not careful.
“A lot of times people mistake friendliness or professionalism, or participation or forcing yourself into the room, as an invitation to allow others to diminish you,” said Masih, vice president of Public Affairs at Capital Impact Group. “That can be in a hug that lingers too long, a kiss on the cheek that is just a little too close for my taste, or a hand that slid down your back a little too far and beyond.”
Masih’s experience mirrored the findings of an anonymous survey of more than 500 women and men who are elected officials, lobbyists, campaign operatives and others in New Jersey politics and government.
More than half said they had experienced sexual harassment — with elected officials cited most often as the ones responsible for lewd or sexist comments and inappropriate touching. But it was the long accumulation of slights, snubs and unwanted attention and comments they found to be most insidious and discouraging, the survey found.
Masih was one of a handful of women who shared their experiences during a frank, two-hour virtual meeting Thursday night, hosted by The New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which led the online survey.
About 57% of the 508 who completed the online survey said they had experienced harassment, with women were far more likely to say they were targeted, with 64% saying they had been harassed, compared to 28% of men.
“It shouldn’t have to be this hard. We are in this arena because we want to contribute good things,” Coalition Executive Director Patricia Teffenhart, a member of the Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey politics.
The workgroup, formed by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, was created in response to an NJ Advance Media report on widespread sexual harassment in local and state politics. The Dec. 29 story included the accounts of more than 20 women who had been sexually assaulted and harassed in state politics and government. None reported the harassment or assault to authorities because most said they feared it would jeopardize their careers.
Koren Frankfort, the finance director for the New York Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said she left New Jersey politics after publishing a scathing preview of the annual League of Municipalities convention in 2017, in which she called it “an event where terrible things have happened to women in our field.”
She didn’t identify any male perpetrators. Still, she stopped being invited to political events, lost work and was treated “with an undertone of cruelty.”
“The cost of coming forward is extremely high right now,” Frankfort said. “People question your integrity and honesty.”
A handful of the survey responders attacked the survey’s entire premise, that women are unfairly marginalized.
The report contains a blind quote from one participant: “Women who use sexuality as a tool to get ahead, then complain when they get ‘sexually harassed,’ have nothing to complain about. The difference between ‘sexual harassment’ and flirting is most often based on the looks of the “harasser,” and that’s just not fair. Feel free to print all of this, if you can handle the criticism.”
The comment elicited a fiery response from Franklin Township Councilwoman Crystal Pruitt, who is also chief of staff for Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Middlesex.
“We do not exist for you. No woman exists for you, for your pleasure and your consumption,” Pruitt said. “If a women is friendly, it’s because as a woman you are taught to be polite and friendly. if I am being nice to you, it doesn’t mean I’m flirting with you.”
Katie Brennan, the chief of staff for the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage and Finance Agency, said remains “delusionally optimistic and persistent that open discussions will change the environment for women.
“I, and I am sure a lot of people could agree…we would all be rich… 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 Brennan, who recently settled a lawsuit against Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign for not investigating her claim that she was raped by a senior aide. “Whatever it is – even if is not inherently sexual, it just makes you feel small but somehow it’s just not directed at the men.”
The survey found the most common types of harassment cited were “verbal remarks of a sexual nature” (23%), followed by “sexist or misogynistic comments” (22%) and “unwanted touching” (15%). About 3% of those responding to the survey said they had been raped or sexually assaulted.
Leaders of the state’s major parties expressed revulsion over the findings and pledged they would do better.
Saily Avelenda, executive director for the Democratic State Committee, called the results “not surprising, unfortunately. This report raises the same troubling issues that people involved in New Jersey’s political culture have voiced in the past.”
The state committee is poised to tackle this issue with the recent plan to implement a “Workplace Culture Program” that requires employee to participate in anti-sexual harassment and workplace discrimination training, Avelenda said. The program also sets up a process that refer all harassment and misconduct complaint investigations to an outside firm.
“We hope that the state legislature, county and local governments and other officials will take these findings seriously and implement their own policies and procedures to eliminate this harmful, unacceptable behavior in their spaces,” Avelenda said.
State Republican Party Chairman Doug Steinhardt called the behavior described in the survey “disgusting,” and used it to take a swipe at Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.
“Know that the NJGOP has taken steps to pitch in to put an end to this behavior” by refusing to make campaign workers and volunteers sign non-disclosure agreements.”
”This may seem like common sense, but our own Governor, Phil Murphy, has failed repeatedly to show leadership and take meaningful steps to expose and combat sexual abuse and harassment in his own party,” Steinhardt said.
Murphy’s 2017 campaign required employees and volunteers to sign NDAs, although last year he said they would not be enforced after coming under scrutiny. He signed a law last year banning non-disclosure agreements.
Read the report describing the survey findings here.
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