Why is Sexual Harassment Back in the News?

This past month in the news, sexual harassment in the workplace has been mentioned almost as many times as Lindsay Lohan’s efforts at rehab. First, it was the suit brought by Anucha Browne Sanders, an executive with the New York Knicks organization, who accused Knicks coach Isiah Thomas of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. A federal judge in Manhattan ruled that the company and its chairman had to pay Ms. Sanders $11.9 million in punitive damages, with a possible $9.6 million in compensatory damages to be decided upon shortly.

Then, the media picked up the story about a mega-lawsuit for sex discrimination against the Bloomberg Corporation that implicated New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for “fostering, condoning and perpetuating” rampant sexual harassment for years at the company, where he stepped down as CEO in 2001 but remains a majority shareholder. Executives there were alleged to have made comments such as “I’m not having any pregnant bitches working for me,” among other degrading comments directed at female employees.

Finally, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was back in the news, slamming his former accuser Anita Hill in a new book. Professor Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee at Justice Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991 about the sexual harassment that he subjected her to when she worked for him at the Department of Education and the Equal Opportunity Commission. Justice Thomas recently published a new book in which he dug into old wounds. In the book, “My Grandfather’s Son,” he called Hill “a combative left-winger,” who was “touchy,” and prone to overreact to perceived “slights,” and reiterated his long held contention that the harassment never took place. In response, Hill appeared on several talk shows and wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, persuasively defending the truth of her allegations that Justice Thomas subjected her to a hostile working environment and pervasive sexual harassment.

It seemed that, after the Hill hearings, the national dialogue on sexual harassment flamed out quickly, and the corporate world suffered a collective bout of “sexual harassment fatigue,” in which everyone acknowledged that it was “wrong,” but people still found discussion of the subject tired, pedantic and somewhat Victorian. The well-meaning mandatory sexual harassment training videos were mocked in by mid-level managers across the country, and quickly became outdated, so that new employees would roll their eyes and groan each year when forced to watch a VHS video tape of a cheesy man in a suit with wide lapels leer at his secretary’s breasts, while a generic-sounding voice-over explained the error of his ways. (like this one, which may or may not be a joke, but is funny either way, and this one, that claims to be from a Sears training.) So, sexual harassment became a taboo topic once again at the beginning of the 21st century, even though the practice remained alive and well in most male-dominated work environments.

So, why is sexual harassment suddenly back in the news after a long hiatus? Is there anything different this time around, either in the cases themselves or in public attitudes towards them that has brought this issue back into focus?

In the early 1990s, when the boundaries of workplace behavior were being redefined, perhaps many women did not feel comfortable speaking out about sexual harassment for fear of reprisal. After a decade or more of advancement in the workplace, perhaps some women feel empowered to speak out about the way their male co-workers treat them. Despite the jeers, maybe all of those training videos are working, and employees both male and female are becoming more aware of gender issues in the workplace and feel more comfortable reporting offensive behavior though the appropriate channels. Or perhaps employers have developed improved infrastructures for reporting and processing harassment claims instead of just burying them internally.

But still, a chicken vs. egg conundrum still exists. Does more reporting and more media coverage of sexual harassment mean that more is occurring? Or does it simply mean that the reporting systems put in place over the last decade are more effective, and thus a greater percentage of the people responsible for the most offensive and egregious types of harassment are being punished and this behavior is less tolerated overall?

We want to know what our readers think. How do sexual harassment policies at your office differ from common practices? How do you draw the individual line between when “boys will be boys,” and standing up for yourself when some something is really wrong? Would you rather report inappropriate conduct or handle the situation informally? Let us know!

0 Response

  1. sandi

    30 years of experience in this field tells me that user friendly reporting policies and procedures are always an employer’s best defense. Couple that with a pro-business administration and underfunded enforcement agencies and bringing claims are difficult for lower income employees. However, empowerment issues and people with the means to combat abuses particularly in areas which interfere with advancement is a positive result of those embedded practices. Clearly courts look to patterns of behavior on inappropriate office humor etc. but not necessarily so with aggregious offenses. Women in particular need to carefully watch this presidential election because there will probably be 3 new Supreme Court appointments that will set our employment laws for many years to come. In the meantime, DOCUMENT everything untoward, USE the reporting procedures and “pick your issues carefully”. An occasional off color joke or comment is not going to be your retirement annuity–but uncomfortable environments or targeted behavior probably is known to coworkers, as well.