Opening Our Eyes to Sexual Harassment

From Trial Magazine, May 1993

Like most women who work outside the home, I was a victim of sexual harassment. It was so long ago that there was no name for it. It was common conduct then, and it is common conduct now. The cost to women, employers, and society is enormous.

When it happened to me, I was humiliated, angry, and panic-stricken. I also felt guilty. What had I done to encourage this behavior? Was I flirtatious? Were my clothes suggestive? I examined everything I had said or done or worn to see how I could have caused this terrible problem.

I loved and needed my job. I knew I was doing good work. I just didn't want to sleep with my boss. I never complained about what he did. I just found another job and left.

During the next several years, my workplace behavior was governed by this experience. I did not socialize with co-workers or supervisors. I adopted a wardrobe that would have been suitable for a nun. I also avoided hugging anyone who wasn't a first-degree relative. For an Irishwoman who comes from a huge family, not hugging was the hardest part.

Sometime in the mid-1970s, I learned that the incident had not been my fault and that I could wear what I wanted and hug at random. I discovered that my experience was not unique and that it had a name. It was a great relief.

Perils of Speaking Out

About a year and a half ago the nation was stunned by allegations of sexual harassment against a Supreme Court nominee. Over several days of painful hearings, the issue of sexual harassment was aired publicly as never before.

Anita Hill's experience -whether you believed her allegations or not- demonstrated for all the world that women who speak out about sexual harassment do so at their peril.

This is why most women don't complain at the time the conduct occurs. They doubt that they will be believed. They think they can handle it. They also fear retaliation, and for good reason: Studies have shown that two out of three women who complain do suffer retaliation. They continue working for their bosses because they need their jobs, often to support children. They simply hang on, hoping the ordeal will end.

Sexual harassment is usually a pattern of behavior. When there is one victim, there are generally others. Whether a woman who wants to come forward can rely on others to confirm her story, however, is always doubtful.

Anita Hill has gone back to Oklahoma to teach law. But the world has changed.

Public opinion polls showed that the majority of men and women did not believe Hill's allegations in October 1991. Since then, the polls have reversed, and now most people believe her. Why? I think it is because after the hearings men and women talked to one another about these issues for the first time and in large numbers.

One evening, I was discussing the hearings with a group of friends, including a couple who had been married nearly 40 years. The husband asked, "Why didn't she complain? Why didn't she just leave?" His wife turned to him and said, "II didn't when it happened to me."

The husband was shocked speechless. To that day, he was unaware that the woman he loved had been sexually harassed in the early years of their marriage. I know that this scenario was repeated again and again all over the country.

Simple Rules

Sexual harassment is not about sex. It is about power. It is exploitation in its rawest form. It grows out of a world view that assigns women certain subordinate roles. It is morally wrong, and it is illegal.

Those who are confused over the meaning of the law need to remember only a few simple rules. If it is something you would not say or do in front of your mother or sister or daughter, it is wrong to say or do it to a co-worker. If you wouldn't say it to a person of the same sex, why would you need to say it to a person of the opposite sex? If you wouldn't want to see it on the front page of the newspaper, you shouldn't do it. If in doubt, don't.

I have been handling sexual harassment cases fur more than a decade. Just when I think I can no longer be shocked, I am shocked. Just when I think I have heard it all, I learn a new word. Just when I think things are better, I find irrefutable evidence that they are not.

The cost to working women of sexual harassment is astronomical in terms of money, but even greater in terms of our mental and physical health. Enforcement of the law will share those costs with the employer. It's about time.

Anita Hill will be honored at the Civil Justice Foundation's Breakfast of Champions at the Annual Convention in San Francisco on August 4. Whatever you think about the hearings and their outcome, no one can deny Hill's impact on our justice system and the working lives of every citizen.

She became a lightning rod for the frustrations of hundreds of thousands of working women. She gave a voice and a face and a name to an almost universal female experience. For that, all of us -men and women- owe her a debt of gratitude.