Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, watched by millions of Americans, put sexual harassment in the workplace at the forefront of the national conversation back then. But what impact has it had on the way workplaces are run today?
Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, her former boss, of sexual harassment before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by then-Delaware senator and now president Joe Biden.
While many vilified her, others viewed her as a hero who stood up for the civil rights of all workers, regardless of gender or race. Thomas denied the allegations and was confirmed to the Supreme Court, by a vote of 52-48, and is presently the longest-serving justice on the bench.
In a recent interview, Hill told Yahoo Finance that the steps corporate America has taken to address sexual harassment, in the 30 years since her testimony, are inadequate.
“The problem is that it still exists, it continues,” said Hill, who is a professor of social policy, law, and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis University, and the author of the new book “Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence.”
Hill laid out three key areas companies need to focus on in order to help bring an end to sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment’s impact on productivity
“First of all, leadership has to acknowledge that [sexual harassment] exists, and that it’s hurting not only employees, but especially the employees and workers throughout their organizations, whether they’re direct victims or no,” she said. “If you’re going to change our organizations, we have to have leaders on board and demanding that change.”
In “Believing,” Hill cites numerous examples of companies that paid a stiff penalty for alleged sexual harassment in their workplaces, including Google parent company Alphabet’s $310 million and Signet Jeweler’s $240 million settlements with shareholders.
Companies should recognize that sexual harassment “is hurting productivity and the effectiveness that people can have in the workplace,” said Hill.
Who are the rules protecting?
The second step requires companies to make their systems transparent and conduct full investigations of allegations, said Hill.
“We need to understand that what we have now in many places and many organizations are systems that fail to address the problems,” said Hill. “We need to take a hard look within our organizations to make sure that we are doing everything we can to keep people safe.”
Hill currently chairs the Hollywood Commission which was launched in 2017 in the aftermath of the #metoo allegations against Harvey Weinstein.
Weinstein was convicted for sexual assault and rape in 2020 and sentenced to a 23-year prison sentence in New York. He was transferred to California in 2021 to face rape and sexual assault charges in L.A.
In “Believing,” Hill explains her decision to work with the Hollywood Commission. “Joining forces with [Hollywood] industry leaders was a shift for me. I had always felt that my role as an advocate against abuses was to use legislative protections and court decisions to pressure employers to make needed changes,” she wrote.
“I also understood the effort’s potential reach beyond Hollywood. As a reflection of social mores and values, the entertainment industry was primed to serve as a microcosm for the problem in other industries; all eyes were already on Hollywood,” she added.
Hill’s work with the Commission has shown that many people who work in entertainment don’t believe leaders are being held accountable.
The Hollywood Commission published a survey on sexual harassment in 2020 and found that only 35% of entertainment workers believed it was very likely or somewhat likely that harassers with high-profile jobs would be held accountable for harassing an individual with less stature in the industry.
“So often now, the stories that I hear are that the solutions that come in are there to protect the people who are in power,” said Hill. “The systems that we now have in place, many of them are truly set up to put all of the burden of change on victims who have been vulnerable.”
Company leaders should prioritize finding solutions and consult with survivors and victims of sexual harassment to develop effective solutions, said Hill.
‘Stop the retaliation’
The third step, Hill said, is ensuring an end to retaliation for complying with an organization’s sexual harassment reporting rules.
“Stop the retaliation,” said Hill, who explains that the rights of workers who make claims are violated when companies do it.
Hill’s mission resonates with many workers. “I think we’ve seen within the last four years as a result of #metoo and then the last 30 years with Anita Hill, some important policy shifts in corporate workplaces,” said Salamishah Tillet, a feminist activist and professor at Rutgers University.
“But the idea that Anita Hill and later Christine Blasey Ford are still considered whistleblowers, that their attempts to speak their truth to power are seen as an anomaly as opposed to the norm, is something that I think corporate America, as well as academia and government, all of these institutions are grappling with,” she said.
“Because of Anita, I knew that sexual harassment in the workplace shouldn’t happen,” said Tillett, who co-hosts a podcast called “Because of Anita.”
“And that sounds simple in some ways, but you can imagine. I’m going into the workplace as a 21-year-old and I think that I’m not supposed to be sexualized, that I'm not supposed to be harassed, and I’m supposed to be treated with equality, and fairness, and justice, and that’s because of Anita,” said Tillet.