AWARES and SWE Host Panel on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Feb. 13, 2020
The third annual Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Panel was hosted by AWARES earlier this year

Sexual harassment was a widespread topic of conversation two years ago. Although the national discussion has diminished, sexual harassment remains prevalent in our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. Earlier this month, two Ohio State students shared their experiences of sexual harassment during their respective internships. Rachel Leitson, a junior studying construction systems management, and Allison Whitney, a senior studying material science and engineering, shared their stories in hopes that their words would encourage others to stand up against sexual harassment.

“Hearing these people’s stories makes you feel like if these things happen to you, you can do something about it,” said Victoria Black, a fourth-year student in material science and engineering.   

This is the third year the Aspiration for Women’s Advancement and Retention in Engineering and Sciences (AWARES) program has hosted a panel discussion about sexual harassment in the workplace. The mission of AWARES is to “empower women students in STEM disciplines to equip them with the necessary social skills for a smooth transition from college to the workplace and a successful career in their professions.” This year, AWARES partnered with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) to expand their audience for this important discussion. 

Camille Hébert, the Carter C. Kissel Professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law, and Kelli Brennan, Title IX and Clery Act coordinator at Ohio State, returned as panel members from previous years. They were joined by Yvette Hunsicker, vice president of the Office of Inclusion and Diversity and Human Resources at Honda North America Inc. who provided HR [Human Resources] perspective on the panel. The program director, Gönül Kaletunç, said that “this was the first year that a pair of students were included in the panel to share their stories to put the discussions into context.” 

Hébert spoke about the legal rights of those who have faced sexual harassment. Her advice to those who have experienced sexual harassment was, “Don’t beat yourself up; it isn’t your fault.” She also mentioned the importance of reporting immediately under the legal standards, but emphasized that most victims of sexual harassment actually do not act in the way that the law expects them to.

After Hébert, Brennan spoke about what is being done to help, support, and prevent sexual harassment at Ohio State. She also reviewed policies that are in place at the university. Brennan works in policy development, with climate assessment, comprehensive prevention education and culture-change initiatives.  

Reports to the university have increased between 40% to 60% every year she has been at Ohio State, according to Brennan. She believes that there are not more sexual harassment cases occurring, but instead, people are more likely to report behavior when it occurs. She attributes this increase to individuals feeling more confident that others are listening and that there are consequences because of movements like #MeToo. 

Social movements towards women’s equality have made considerable improvements in the last few years, but we still have a way to go. Sierra van Dijk, a 5th year studying mechanical engineering, says her biggest takeaway was “that there are things already in place to help… stuff may still happen, but now we know what the response is if it does. I think having honest conversations about it is important; It is getting better, but you are still likely going to experience this in some way. I think having an honest dialogue was the most important takeaway, as well as ways to deal with it.”

Over 150 people attended the panel discussionThe last speaker, Hunsicker, spoke about her own experiences and provided industry insight. As an African-American woman in the automobile manufacturing industry, she has had her fair share of struggles but has persevered. As a result of her determination and hard work, she has become very successful. Hunsicker spoke highly of one of her female sponsors that helped her get a place at the table at Honda and the importance of having allies that are both women and men.

Over 150 people attended the event, but not all those in attendance were women. Gerry Lauelle, a senior studying electrical and computer engineering, was present along with a number of other men. One of his biggest takeaways was hearing the women tell their stories and acknowledging that men need to advocate and support them.

Ana Maria Velasaquez Giraldo, a graduate student in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, said the stories shared by each of the student panelists and how their experiences have forever altered their lives was what impacted her the most.

“The biggest consequence of her harassment was a permanent anxiety that follows her everywhere, all the time, forever. That is striking to think of the damage that sexual harassment really causes, hence the importance of this event and working toward preventing sexual harassment in the future,” Giraldo said.

Valerie Gurevich, a second year studying food, agricultural and biological engineering, is better prepared for the industry because of this event. She learned, “There are resources available and that you should be mentally prepared to take on whatever happens. Don’t be afraid and back down.” 

The Dean of the College of Engineering David Williams and Associate Dean Rachel Kleit were also among the attendees of the event. Williams, a supporter of the AWARES program from its inception, emphasized that “AWARES is an extraordinary program that gives women engineers the tools to be successful in what is still a male-dominated field. While it was truly sad to hear of the terrible experiences of female students in various internships and how career plans have changed because of the actions of male colleagues, it is also tremendously reassuring to see the resilience and strength of our women students when faced with such situations.” 

Kleit also commented on the student panelists, saying “I am so impressed by the young women who shared their stories to enable their fellow students to learn what they can do when faced with sexual harassment on the job.  Research shows that sexual harassment is common in male-dominated fields like STEM or construction management, and addressing it proactively is essential to moving towards parity of representation in these fields.”

To close the event, Gönül Kaletunç reiterated the purpose of AWARES program to create awareness in important issues affecting the women’s personal and professional life and advised the young women to keep the insights from the evening’s discussion to guide them.

For more information, or if you are interested in joining AWARES or SWE please click below. 




by Christina Gaerke 

This year's panel was held in The Ohio Union