Ally Coll Steele is a graduate of Harvard Law School with experience at the intersection of law, policy and politics. She draws from her work on policy reform in both the U.S. House and Senate, legal education on women’s issues, and experience serving in leadership positions on numerous federal campaigns to help the Purple Campaign achieve lasting change.
Can you tell me what lead you to found the Purple Campaign?
The endeavor really began last October, when I was approached by Michelle Lee, a Washington Post reporter, as the #MeToo movement was taking off. She asked if I would share my own experience with sexual harassment as an intern on Capitol Hill, which I ultimately did, leading her to write this article highlighting the need for sexual harassment reform in Congress.At the time I shared my story, I was employed as a litigation associate at a D.C. law firm. Shortly after the Washington Post article came out, the New Yorker reported that my law firm hired private investigators who lied to, targeted, and spied on the women coming forward with their stories about Harvey Weinstein. This prompted me and my colleagues to speak up about what happened and push for internal efforts and reforms to mitigate the harm that was caused to these women.My personal involvement in the #MeToo movement showed me how much work there is to be done–not just within my own law firm or the legal profession, but in every workplace and across every industry. That’s when I reached out to my former classmate and tech industry executive Jessica Patterson, and together we started building the Purple Campaign.
Can you summarize the work of the Purple Campaign?
Our mission is to end workplace sexual harassment, and we are doing that by implementing stronger corporate policies, establishing better laws, and empowering people within their own workplaces and communities. On the employer side, we are building relationships with industry leaders, working with companies to review their internal policies and practices, and developing effective training and educational programs for business leaders and employees. On the public policy front, we are organizing action campaigns and asking lawmakers to establish better laws and policies to address workplace sexual harassment, and empowering people to make their voices heard on this topic in upcoming elections.
The Purple Campaign has been working with law schools to help prepare lawyers to enter the job market with skill to prevent and respond to sexual harassment, what other places can we start making cultural changes? Are there opportunities to start even younger?
This problem is ultimately a cultural one, so education — at all ages, career stages, and across institutions — is a key part of the solution. Anyone who is in a position to do so should set clear expectations about the values and integrity of an institution, the rights and responsibilities of those who are a part of it, and the way people treat one other.People also often forget that sexual harassment frequently occurs outside of the traditional employer-employee relationship. For example, in politics lobbyists often interact with staffers on Capitol Hill, and yet they are not governed by the same HR policies for reporting sexual harassment. The same is true of interactions at events, conferences, meetings, or coworking spaces. Supervisors and managers should therefore ensure that any codes of conduct or workplace policies are shared not only with their formal employees, but also with volunteers, consultants, or outside vendors — and that everyone agrees to abide by the same rules and norms.
Thinking about the legislative work of the Purple Campaign, is there bipartisan support for ending the systemic problem of workplace sexual harassment?
a. What examples have you seen on a federal?
b. In Rhode Island the member of the General Assembly went through sexual harassment training this year for the first time and Representative Tanzi introduced legislation creating a study commission in Rhode Island. What other examples have you seen at a state level?
At the federal level, we have been encouraged to see lawmakers from both parties, men and women, ready to take action on ending this systemic problem. For example, on February 6th, the House of Representatives unanimously passed bipartisan reforms to the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) to improve Congress’s own rules for handling sexual harassment complaints. The legislation is pending in the Senate, but we are hopeful it will soon pass with strong bipartisan support.There is also a bipartisan bill pending in both the House and the Senate to end the use of forced arbitration for sexual harassment claims. Recently all 56 state Attorneys General — Democrats and Republicans — signed a joint letter to Congress in support of this bill, and several major companies, like Uber and Microsoft, have recently voluntarily ended the practice. We are hopeful that this bill will be next up on the #MeToo legislative agenda in Congress, once the CAA is passed.At the state level, we have seen an unprecedented amount of bipartisan legislation introduced by state legislatures. In Texas, for example, state Senator Jose Menendez has proposed a bill that would limit the use of NDAs, which prevent people from speaking out about workplace harassment. Washington State and New York City also recently passed sweeping bills prohibiting the use of NDAs and instituting other new legal requirements for employers to address workplace sexual harassment.
Based on your work the Purple Campaign, how do you get male elected officials to understand the importance and urgency to take action on sexual harassment?
One of the biggest myths I encounter is that men do not have a place in the conversation about workplace sexual harassment. But this is an issue that affects both men and women in the workplace, so it is critical that men — and especially our male elected officials — join and even lead the conversation. I’ve been encouraged to see male elected leaders like U.S. Senator Tim Kaine and Congressman Seth Moulton express their support for both the Purple Campaign and legislative efforts to address sexual harassment in the wake of #MeToo.It’s understandable that many men want to be sensitive to the fact that workplace sexual harassment is mostly experienced by women — and they should allow women who want to have a voice to have one, and support them in doing so. But studies show that workplace sexual harassment decreases employee motivation and institutional commitment — even among those who don’t experience it themselves. So it’s on all of us to work together to improve the cultures of the places where we work.
Last, I know some of our readers might have their own stories, and maybe some have never shared them, what advice do you have for people with stories, and how best to start sharing their stories?
Since October, more than 12 million people have said #MeToo and shared their personal stories about sexual harassment. It is because of sharing that #MeToo has become a topic of national (and international) conversation. However, as someone who shared my own experience about workplace sexual harassment, I know it is not easy to speak out. That’s largely because misconduct has remained unaddressed for so long, and retaliation is still a real concern in many workplaces and industries.While we have seen many publicly share their own #MeToo moments, it is important to recognize that this approach may not be accessible or preferable to everyone. There is no one-size-fits all solution to sharing your stories, but the best advice I can offer is to think through your goals in doing so, and then to share your story in a format and with people who you think will best help you achieve those goals while protecting you from adverse consequences or retaliation. If you have experienced misconduct and are debating whether or how to share your story, I would encourage you to check out these great resources from our partners at BetterBrave or seek guidance from an expert through the national RAINN hotline.
Addressing sexual harassment in Congress shouldn’t be a partisan issue; it’s about protecting the staff who work to serve our country every day.