A supervisor at a progressive government agency who hits on the 20-year-old intern. A liberal Congressman who talks up the “diversity” of his office but constantly condescends to his handful of female staffers. A nonprofit professional who asks a colleague at a conference about whether she likes dick pics and, hey, would she offer her opinion on his own lighting and photo techniques?
These are three of the stories posted on Shine Squad, a new website and online community that aims to bring together women who have faced discrimination and harassment specifically in social-justice-focused political spaces. While nonprofits and companies focused on improving the social good have positive intentions at their core, that doesn’t mean they’re free of sexism and abuse, says Shine Squad co-founder Jeanne Brooks, who organize events like hackathons and conferences for the tech industry. “In social good spaces, there is often a natural assumption of safety in the workplace that doesn’t actually exist. We’re dispelling the myth that these are safe spaces,” says Brooks.
The idea for a group specifically shining a light on sexist issues in the “social good” spheres of nonprofits, political organizing, and progressive conferences was sparked by the revelation of problems at Washington, DC-based progressive PR powerhouse FitzGibbon Media. Over the years, FitzGibbon has worked with numerous feminist-minded organizations, including Amnesty International, MoveOn, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and UltraViolet. But in December, female staffers reported to HR that company president Trevor FitzGibbon had committed more than half a dozen incidents of sexual harassment and at least two incidents of sexual assault. In response, FitzGibbon called the allegations a “distraction” and promptly closed the entire office, leaving the whole staff out of work. Reading about the issues at FitzGibbon, Deanna Zandt, Tracy Van Slyke, Sabrina Hersi Issa, and Jeanne Brooks decided they wanted to create a network where women could share negative experiences and get resources and support. Shine Squad was born.
All too often, someone in a position of power is able to get away with abusing employee after employee precisely because that person is publicly admired for doing good work. “They have this invisible protective sphere that they can do no wrong,” says Brooks. Harassment and abuse takes many forms. “Sometimes it’s just off-handedly being undermined in the space, sometimes it’s openly being hit on in an inappropriate way,” says Brooks. For Tracey Van Slyke, director of the culture lab at the Citizen Engagement Lab, talking more openly about uncomfortable interactions that seem small helps connect the dots of a systemic and pervasive problem. She notes that a sexist culture frequently manifests in “little ways,” from male coworkers evaluating what she’s wearing to being interrupted and talked over when taking part in an otherwise all-male panel at a conference. “We’ve got to expose and explode it, we’ve got to change the culture of acceptance and denial,” says Van Slyke.
Formed in January, Shine Squad is still taking shape. It’s not clear what specific projects the group will take on—right now, the co-founders want to hear from other women about their experiences to identify the the biggest problems that Shine Squad could work to address. To that end, they’re hoping to get women who work or volunteer in progressive fields to take a survey about experiences with harassment and ideas on how to counter abuse. The group is currently also sharing anonymous stories on its website.
Discrimination and harassment seeps into politics in all sorts of ways—and progressives are not immune by a long shot. A recent analysis by Jezebel showed that while the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns have relatively equal pay for men and women, the majority of the 10 highest-paid employees on both campaigns are men (six out of 10 on the Clinton campaign and 10 out of 10 on Sanders). Gender-based discrimination will continue to plague all realms of politics, unless we work to change that culture. “It’s assumed that we’re better or beyond these kinds of problems, when in fact it’s pervasive in subtle and overt kinds of ways,” says Van Slyke. The first step to improving that culture is to talk about the problem.