No joke: Train trip is step in right direction … but there’s still a ways to go

The Walk to Washington train trip. (File photo)

“You look nice,” the man said to the woman. “Am I allowed to say that under these new rules?”

It was meant as a joke. And it was the type of “joke” that played out a few times on the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce’s Walk to Washington networking train Thursday.

And, while the trip apparently went off without any noted incident of inappropriate behavior toward women, the idea that some people still feel it’s OK to make jokes about the #MeToo movement means more education is needed.

That’s the way Patricia Teffenhart, the executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, sees it. And she wants everyone to join in the effort to enlighten others.

“This is where I think good bystander strategies are really important,” she said. “When someone makes a joke and says, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, is this a #MeToo moment?’ I think the answer is, ‘I don’t see what’s funny about that.’

“The #MeToo movement was built on the backs of survivors of some of the worst sexual assaults you can imagine. So, if you think it’s funny, then the problem is on you for holding those ideologies. And I think it’s on all of us to call that out and say, ‘This isn’t funny.’

“It’s not funny that I, as a woman, and my female colleagues have to walk on tiptoes through public events in order to do our course of work. None of that is funny, and I think it’s about time we take it seriously. And I think that the chamber is, as evidenced by some of the reforms we’re dealing with today.”

Teffenhart was speaking at a media event as the annual train ride carrying approximately 700 business and government leaders rolled down the Northeast Corridor shortly after a stop in Philadelphia.

The networking trip — and other networking events in the state — were cited as having a history of being filled with functions conducive to sexual harassment toward females.

It led to major changes on the trip — including limiting the type of alcohol served and increasing security. And it led to a working group by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) to bring these issues to light.

Three members of that working group — Teffenhart, as well as Sabeen Masih of Capital Impact Group and Elizabeth Randall of Columbia Bank — spoke to a dozen or so members of the media on the train.

Overall, they were pleased with the trip — and pleased with the way the chamber took on the issue. And that’s a step in the right direction, Teffenhart said.

“I think the most important thing is that there actually is a code of conduct, which really seems so elementary, but we’re talking about the behaviors that have happened at this event and other political and governmental-type events over the years,” she said. “People are really blurring the lines of what’s appropriate and not appropriate, particularly while we’re doing the course of business.

“I think we’ve been really pleased with (how the) business sector and governmental sector have responded to all of these changes. And we’re looking forward to continuing to work with all of our colleagues to continue to make New Jersey a safer place to work.”

The jokes likely will continue. Teffenhart doesn’t expect them to stop overnight. Progress is what she wants. And it’s what she sees.

“The one thing that we know to be true is that behavior change starts in small snippets,” she said.

The trip down went off without a problem. There were no incidents on the train — and the only person to call the hotline did so because they missed the train and didn’t know what to do.

Knowing what to do — and what not to do — on the train or at other networking events is another lesson. One Masih feels is starting to resonate.

“I think everyone’s really realizing that this is a networking opportunity, and all the other stuff was kind of the white noise that was a hindrance to us being able to act professionally in this environment,” she said.

Masih hopes it will carry over.

“I think just transparency in general will help kind of set the tone for all political events at the state, local, county levels,” she said. “I think that the fact that there are eyes on this, folks are just hearing about certain instances (that are) not isolated experiences.

“We’ve seen a theme in the past that that bad behaviors have been excused. We’re seeing a change towards progress and I think that will permeate the rest of politics.”

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