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Oct. 26, 2018
This story appears in the spring 2019 edition of the Northwest Alumni Magazine. To access more stories and view the magazine in its entirety online, click here.
Northwest Missouri State University alumna Kirsten Anderson is on a mission to equip people with the tools they need to stop workplace harassment and visited the campus this week to share her story.
“Everybody wants a workplace where they feel safe, they can simply do their best work, provide their best product for their employer, and when there are extenuating circumstances that prevent that from happening, then there isn’t a productive, safe work environment,” Anderson, a 2000 Northwest graduate said. “And then it starts affecting other parts of your life.”
Anderson shared her story with Northwest leadership Wednesday and then with Northwest students, employees and community members Thursday as part of the University’s Career Pathing series. Her presentation is titled “Workplace Harassment: The Big Picture.”
Anderson earned her bachelor’s degree from Northwest in broadcast journalism with a minor in political science, and was active as a student employee at the University’s award-winning National Public Radio affiliate, KXCV-KRNW, and the student-led television station KNWT.
Upon graduating she launched her career as a staff assistant in a U.S. Senator’s Kansas City, Missouri, office. She felt respected and trusted as she represented the senator in the community, and she loved being in politics.
“Regardless of political affiliation, I enjoy the strategy, the psychology behind politics,” she said. “It fascinates me.”
In 2008, Anderson landed her dream job as communications director for Iowa Senate Republicans, but the role led her down an unexpected path. What started as unsettling dinnertime conversation with a coworker and a senator during a break from evening debate turned into years of verbal sexual harassment of Anderson and her coworkers.
After filing three complaints with her supervisor, Anderson began facing retaliation. She was uninvited to important meetings where she needed to gather information as part of her job. Her work was scrutinized and coworkers called her names.
“My job as communications director was to make 24 different senators look good in their districts back home in Iowa,” she said. “That was what I was supposed to do, and it became very hard as I went along because I was being sexually harassed at the capitol, where our laws are made, by our lawmakers.”
Anderson felt miserable and kept the embarrassing behavior to herself. She was trying to be “a career gal” and handle it. “My husband and I needed the income, and it wasn’t as simple as just walking away and finding another job,” she said. “It’s never that simple.”
In May 2013, Anderson hit a breaking point and filed her fourth complaint, outlining her expectations for a safer work environment. “I wanted the harassment to stop,” she said. “I wanted to work with them on new policies. I wanted to work with the legislators on toning it down, checking their behavior.”
She placed the memo on her supervisor’s desk at 8 o’clock in the morning. She was fired seven hours later.
Anderson sued the State of Iowa and Iowa Senate Republicans for wrongful termination, harassment and retaliation, and a four-year court battle culminated in July 2017 with a jury awarding her $2.2 million. The state appealed the decision and Anderson later settled out of court.
“We did not ask for a monetary amount,” Anderson said. “For me it was never about the money. That amount is something that a jury, after hearing all of the evidence, felt that I deserved due to the egregious behavior, and that should speak volumes to everyone.”
The decision proved to be a pivotal moment in Anderson’s life and prompted her to speak on her own terms about creating healthy workplaces while providing guidance and steps people can take to avoid an ordeal like hers.
She founded Equitas Solutions to help employers respond and train their workforces to address harassment. She speaks to young adults at colleges and universities, women’s groups and conferences of all kinds.
“It’s important that students hear this message so that they know what really happens at some workplaces and that they are prepared to not only stand up for themselves but support other people and work to make their future workplace safer, more productive and essentially harassment-free,” she said.
Anderson’s visit to Northwest coincided with two other offerings this week on the campus that are related to the topic of sexual harassment. “What We Were Wearing,” an exhibit that aims to dispel the myth that a person’s clothing justifies acts of violence committed against them, opened in the Administration Building Monday and continues through Nov. 9. Tarana Burke, a social justice activist and the founder of the “me too” movement, also appeared Wednesday at Northwest to deliver the University’s James H. Lemon Lecture.
“I think the beauty of the ‘me too’ movement is that we are finding a human connection amongst each other to feel confident enough to come forward and speak our truths,” Anderson said. “There’s camaraderie in that. There’s that sameness, and we all want that human connection, and part of that is tapping into that support system.”
Anderson also has begun working with like-minded individuals and ramping up efforts to prompt legislative changes. According to the National Women’s Law Center, about 100 bills have been introduced in state legislatures to enforce stricter rules to combat workplace harassment, but not many have passed.
“This is, societally and culturally, a really hot topic right now, and I feel like I can make a difference by changing hearts and minds and that people will listen, and that’s proven true.”
To learn more about Anderson and Equitas Solutions, visit www.kirstenanderson.org.
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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Northwest Missouri State University
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