CINCINNATI — Although it’s been decades since Karen Bankston was married to him, her second husband’s cruelty is never far from the surface.
His abuse permeated her life, she said, at home, at church and even at work.
“On the job, when I got promoted, he accused me of sleeping with my supervisors,” said Bankston, an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati's College of Nursing. “The emotional abuse is just as horrible as any physical abuse. It was never, ‘I’m proud of you.’ You really begin to question yourself."
Bankston took the promotion and ended that marriage. She has been happily married to a different man for nearly three decades.
But her experience as a survivor of abuse is far from unique.
After a 2016 study found intimate partner violence interferes with the ability of local women to build better lives for themselves and their children, The Women’s Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation wanted to help.
“We talk about all these challenges to women in the workplace, and this is like the biggest hidden problem we’ve ever encountered,” said Meghan Cummings, executive director of The Women’s Fund. “It’s the one that goes unnamed. It’s the one we just don’t talk about, and it’s so prevalent in a person’s ability to move up and into different careers.”
The Women’s Fund worked with a group of nonprofit organizations and businesses over the past 18 months to better understand how intimate partner violence interferes with working women’s ability to become self-sufficient.
Four survivors were at the center of the effort, helping the other participants understand their experiences and what could have helped them at work.
The goal was to increase understanding and empathy among employers when it comes to intimate partner violence. The group also developed recommendations for policies and procedures that businesses and nonprofit organizations can adopt to help employees who are struggling.
‘Calls we don’t want to get’
Nationally, one out of three women experience some form of physical violence at the hands of an intimate parter, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Gender-based violence affects women across the region, said Kristin Shrimplin, CEO of Women Helping Women.
“What we know is survivors walk amongst us everywhere in this region,” she said. “So of course that means they’re in the workforce.”
Unfortunately, some companies react by ending a woman’s employment after they discover the problem, she said.
“It’s through the lens of liability or through the lens of other things that go on paper that are really through the lens of risk mitigation,” Shrimplin said. “They’re being held responsible for the violence.”
Having four survivors of intimate partner violence at the center of the latest effort was critically important, said Sarah Corlett, director of community development and strategy for Design Impact.
The Women’s Fund enlisted Design Impact to help guide the group’s work.
Corlett said everyone agreed it was important not to duplicate the efforts of other local organizations. Women Helping Women, for example, has a program called WorkStrong that helps corporations, governments and nonprofit organizations craft policies that help employees who are experiencing intimate partner violence.
Shrimplin said her agency developed that program after several employers contacted Women Helping Women because they had employees die as the result of domestic violence homicides.
“Those are the calls we don’t want to get anymore,” she said.
The recommendations that came out of the Design Impact work are more general, Cummings said.
One suggestion is to give all employees an explanation of the company’s policies related to intimate partner violence when they start, she said.
That way people who are struggling with the issue don’t get singled out.
Design Impact created what Cummings calls a “visual map” that companies could use to explain polices and what employees should expect if they make supervisors aware of the problem.
“Survivors share with us that employers often have the best intentions, but some of their interventions are not helpful at all,” Cumming said.
A male manager walking into a company parking lot to confront a violent husband, for example, could make things even worse for the employee the manager is trying to protect once that employee gets home, Shrimplin said.
The employers involved in the effort were open to what the survivors, especially, had to say, Corlett said.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the vulnerability and the willingness of employers in the room to stop and listen, admit where they were failing and where they could do better,” Corlett said.
One employer involved in the effort, for example, asked her home health care staff how many of them had experienced intimate partner violence. She was shocked to find that roughly 75 percent of her employees said they had, Cummings said.
“When we have low-wage jobs that are female-dominated at the lower socio-economic level, we think these are just real hot spots for this type of behavior,” she said.
That behavior ranges from intimidation or undermining efforts to get ahead all the way to physical violence.
Some survivors said their partners would turn off alarm clocks so they would be late for work or for job training, for example, while others said the physical abuse got worse as they got raises or promotions.
“I would hope that what the community is going to get now is action,” Shrimplin said.
That’s not to say employers can end intimate partner violence through office policies, she said, but employers must understand that there's a business case for getting better at dealing with the problem.
“For corporate decision-makers, this is about bottom line," she said, "and this is about productivity, and this is about retention and recruitment.”
Above all, Shrimplin said, employers must trust their employees to be the experts in what they need.
Those needs can be complicated when it comes to surviving an abusive relationship, Bankston added.
"Even when I got a divorce, and I intellectually felt it was the right thing to do, emotionally I felt like I had failed again," Bankston said. "It's just emotionally a horrible feeling on top of any smacks in the face or getting pushed down that you may also experience."
More information about The Women’s Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation is available online. Information about the Women Helping Women WorkStrong program is available online, too.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.