The Political Season 2016 – Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

“Women who accuse men, particularly powerful men, of harassment
are often confronted with the reality of the men’s sense
that they are more important than women, as a group.”
― Anita HillSpeaking Truth to Power

Twenty-five years ago, Anita Hill, a distinguished Yale Law School graduate and Washington D.C. attorney, accused a powerful man, Judge Clarence Thomas, who had just been nominated by President George H.W. Bush to the Supreme Court of the United States, of sexual harassment when she reported to him a decade earlier at both the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The accusation reportedly was made privately and dismissed; but a leak to the media prompted Ms. Hill to be called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing.

Shedding Light on Workplace Sexual Harassment 

Although Judge Thomas was African-American, many African-American and women’s groups voiced deep concerns about Judge Thomas’s lack of experience — only two years as a judge — and his conservative positions, fearing that by his replacing the legendary Justice Thurgood Marshall who was a liberal and the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court and whose tenure spanned nearly a quarter century until his death — many of the Supreme Court’s decisions favoring women and minorities could be compromised. Despite Judge Thomas’s controversial nomination, however, the confirmation process had been moving along smoothly. It came to a screeching halt with Ms. Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment, which cast a shadow over Judge Thomas’s main qualification, which had been promoted to make up for his lack of experience: his character.

Ms. Hill, an African-American woman, faced an all-white, all-male panel that judged — as well as scorned and criticized — her testimony, and passed up few opportunities to humiliate and discredit her. At the time of the televised hearings that held many Americans enthralled, I was still a member of the corporate workplace and the mother of a six-year-old daughter. I remember clearly identifying with Anita Hill as a woman first and not different from me, a white woman, because of her race. She and I were sisters under the skin, having experienced sexual harassment at our places of employment. My experiences spanned two industries in the 1960s and ’70s, the era of my coming of age. Along with many other women who had been down that wretched road I watched the hearings with increasing outrage; at times shedding tears of frustration and anger. Ms. Hill did not convince the panel to deny Clarence Thomas a seat on the Supreme Court, but she did bring the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace to the forefront of American consciousness.

The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas saga has been dramatized in a recent HBO movie, Confirmation.

Looking Back In Anger

The term, “sexual harassment” came about in the late 1970s in response to what seemed to be an epidemic in the workplace. Women gave accounts of workplace situations that included — among others — a hostile environment of unwanted sexual language and advances that made them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, suggestions that a woman’s job was secure only if she traded sexual favors and all-out sexual assaults that ranged from groping, pinching and slapping to rape. Of course, this “epidemic” had been occurring before the mid-20th century; a case going back to 1887 documents a domestic workers abuse case.

During my experiences of sexual harassment in the sixties and seventies, when I was a young women navigating the corporation and before laws were in place that clearly defined “sexual harassment” as being illegal, sexual improprieties in the workplace were overt. Men exercised few restraints from commenting openly on a woman’s looks, her reputation or their male sexual fantasies concerning women with whom they worked or women who worked for their clients, vendors or other business partners. Few holds were barred when it came to touching, grabbing and groping various parts of a woman’s anatomy or slapping her on the derriere as she walked by. Women were indeed objects to be admired, handled, bossed and dominated, and if they didn’t play nice or show respect to their male bosses or coworkers — even when they were being denigrated and debased by the same — suffered retaliation.

As the ’60s and ’70s progressed and the times they were a-changin’, sexual harassment became more covert. Sly jokes and teasing comments, a casual arm thrown over the shoulder, a man’s thigh “accidentally” touching a woman’s under the conference table, seemingly innocent personal questions about a woman’s social life, caustic remarks about a women’s disposition being due to her “time of month,” unkind comments about a woman’s pregnancy and its aftermath, and so on, took the place of flagrant harassment. But it was there and it made women uncomfortable, feel diminished and occasionally cost them promotions or even their jobs.

Thank goodness things are different now! Or are they?

Sexual Harassment in the 21st Century 

Just as women of a certain age have begun to feel that times have changed for the better  — and that their daughters, granddaughters, nieces and other young women can progress in their careers and jobs free of sexual harassment and the workplace situations in which they found themselves decades ago — surfacing from the depths of misogyny come two powerful dinosaurs to pronounce arrogantly to the nation that sexual harassment — despite the social consciousness-raising of the past two generations and laws on the books — is triumphantly alive and attempting to make a stand.

Donald Trump likes to say that he is a straight talker and has repeatedly stated his aversion to saying anything that is “politically correct”, which he believes justifies his horrific words and actions. Of course, many have come to realize that the term “politically correct” is merely code used by those who object to showing respect, civility or decency in speaking to or about others that were previously routinely disrespected and abused, including women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBT people, people from certain foreign lands or anyone who is different in ways that the politically incorrect crowd feels offend.

Some men harass and try to intimidate women in private, some do it covertly in public, but the Republican nominee for President and Commander In Chief of the United States of America — who would be sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution and all the discrimination and harassment laws of the land — feels no compunction about harassing, insulting and demeaning specific women as well as women in general loudly and often in public.

Roger Ailes, the former chairman and CEO of Fox News who has resigned that post in the wake of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by dismissed Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, is a powerful man being accused by a woman — and perhaps several women — who were employed by him.

In my mind, the process of sexual harassment incidents surfacing in the news again is akin to a volcano that has been prettily and peacefully covering “hot spots” for years, and then suddenly those hot spots erupt and spew the embarrassing mess all over the headlines for everyone to see. Trump and Ailes provide examples of the blatant sexual harassment eruptions that are impossible to ignore; in that respect they are a blessing in that society is reminded of the curse that still plagues us. The question is who will get hurt: the perpetrators of sexual harassment or their victims?

Perhaps the silver lining in the dark clouds of news and stories of sexual harassment in the workplace over the past few years is that Millennial women are becoming increasingly enlightened about its existence and history through Anita Hill’s story, the ongoing display by political and media figures and the male chauvinism depicted in the popular TV series, Mad Men. Knowing the history of a subject makes one less likely to be blindsided and more equipped to cope.

What’s a Woman To Do?

Women also are generally loath to report sexual harassment or discrimination to their human resources departments because they do not want to trigger retaliation or a backlash, even though it is illegal for an employer to use such tactics. While it is true that the mission of HR departments is to protect the companies for which they work, they are also bound to enforce company policies and the law. And sophisticated and enlightened employers understand that a reputation for fairness is one of the best ways to attract talented and loyal employees.

A woman who believes that she has been sexually harassed should approach the resolution one step at a time rather than resorting to drastic measures as the first choice. Individual lawsuits, for example, are expensive and it is usually very difficult to compete in court against a large corporation that has more money and resources than one individual has or can afford. That is one reason that class action lawsuits are popular — there are strength and safety in numbers.

Important also is to present a confident and authoritative brand that can preempt harassment or curtail it by having the self-assurance to confront the harasser and nip the problem in the bud. This is usually easier when one works for a large publicly-traded corporation where policies and laws against sexual harassment are clearly published and enforced, whereas it can be more challenging when working for a small or mid-size company that is privately held or family owned where anti-sexual harassment training or policies might not be taken seriously or deemed necessary. Another factor is that companies are subject to federal sexual harassment laws only if they have 15 or more employees, although they might be subject to state laws that close that gap.

It was disturbing to me, but not surprising, to hear Donald Trump’s solution if a woman is sexually harassed at work; responding to a question about what his daughter should do if she were sexually harassed at work he said he would like to think that she would find work at another company or seek another career. That, of course, is exactly what a woman should not have to do, although some employers would be happy to see that happen rather than deal with a sexual harassment complaint; and to that end an employer might try to discredit the complainant, demote her, cancel a promotion or salary increase or otherwise make it extremely unpleasant for her to stay. But even if a female employee does not file a complaint, she might be forced to leave by a boss or coworker who continues to harass her and create such a hostile environment that she can no longer function.

I believe that part of managing one’s career is knowing company policy on sexual harassment and taking those measured and appropriate steps if such harassment occurs. And being familiar with federal and state laws regarding sexual harassment is crucial. Also helpful is the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) website that contains information that everyone should know.

We cannot have etiquette, ethics and empathy in the workplace as long as sexual harassment endures there.

Until next time,

Jeanne

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