In terms of sexual assault allegations, the military could be seen as a trendsetter. A decades-old scandal was so shocking it began a serious evaluation of the role of women in the ranks. Years later, Joce Sterman found one reason why a fix has been so hard: the military doesn’t even agree on what constitutes sexual misconduct.
Paula Coughlin: There’s been a real lack of understanding. A lack of understanding what happened to me and those other women in the hallway. A lack of understanding about how to handle that situation and a lack of understanding of why it’s so important that that kind of behavior not be tolerated.
In 1991, the word 'tailhook' became synonymous with workplace sexual harassment, and Paula Coughlin became the face of the scandal. More than 80 women were allegedly assaulted during an annual event for sailors and marines called the Tailhook symposium in Las Vegas.
Paula Coughlin: What happened to me was criminal and it had to be stopped.
In the aftermath of that investigation, the role of women in the military went through significant changes. Now, the nation's largest employer - the Department of Defense - is taking a new approach, to track and police sexual harassment.
Brenda Farrell: We've seen top leadership at times at DOD be very forthcoming and prioritize some of these issues like sexual assault as we will have zero tolerance. We haven't seen that for sexual harassment. It is something that's on their radar but they just haven't moved it up as a high priority.
Brenda Farrell has spent a decade watching the military's efforts to police sexual misconduct as a watchdog for the Government Accountability Office. While the DOD has made sweeping changes to deal with sexual assault, a recent audit found the agency has been missing the mark, when it comes to targeting the progression of unwanted sexual behavior. It's something they call the continuum of harm.
Brenda Farrell: There's been some studies, the research is out. There's an understanding where sexual harassment fits on this continuum and that you need more information in order to prevent criminal crimes that are, you know, sexual assault.
Tracking incidents of sexual harassment, according to the GAO report, differs depending on the branch of the military.
Brenda Farrell: Some of the services collected information that the other services didn't. For example, the Marine Corps would record whether or not alcohol or drug use was involved in a sexual harassment incident. And the other services didn't. Another thing that stood out to us that was different was the services categorize sexual harassment differently.
To change that, the GAO offered recommendations to standardize reporting for sexual harassment. The DOD agreed with the recommendations. They denied our request for an interview, but in a statement, they told us, "The Department is firmly committed to eliminating sexual harassment from the armed forces and does not tolerate or condone these behaviors.
Retired Colonel Don Christensen: The culture is ready for this. The country is ready for this. I think the vast majority of the men and women who serve are ready for this. We just need the people who wear these stars on their shoulders to step up to the plate.
Retired Air Force Colonel Don Christensen is a former judge advocate general - military prosecutor - and lawyer. He's now the President of Protect Our Defenders - a national group focused on combating sexual violence and harassment in the military. Christensen says because of its well-established leadership structure- the DOD may just be the best group of any to tackle the problem of sexual harassment. If they create and set new and clear standards - Christensen says - the impact could reach far beyond the ranks of the military.
Joce: Do you see this as an opportunity for the DOD to be an example to other branches, to private industry?
Retired Colonel Don Christensen: I think the DOD if they were to tackle this seriously, could be as big as the #MeToo movement probably could be even bigger than the #MeToo movement because they have such a broad impact on the entire country. You know obviously, we had the biggest budget. We're the world's largest employer, which is often lost on people I think. And so if the world's largest employer can solve this, that's a great example for the rest of the world.
The DOD says they'll put that plan in work by 2019. They said they'd do something similar in 2011 but did not take action.