October 17, 2017

The phrase most commonly used to describe a particularly noxious form of workplace aggression is sexual harassment. But sexual predation is more apt in many instances. What is it if not predatory when a male boss abuses his power to demand physical gratification from a female employee?

The problem is age-old. But as is obvious to anyone reading or watching the news, concerns have intensified lately with allegations of serial predation by the moviemaker Harvey Weinstein. He joins a parade of celebrities and business powerhouses accused of treating women as mere pleasure providers: Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Uber and Amazon Studios employees, swaths of Silicon Valley — a quorum of indecency. Not to mention that a man who boasted of grabbing women by the genitalia sits in the White House.

Retro Report, a series of video documentaries that examine the enduring impact of major news stories of the past, explores the unfolding of this issue across several generations, starting with how it came to be labeled. You have to go back to the mid-1970s, when a writer named Lin Farley was teaching a course on “Women and Work” at Cornell. “I kept thinking we’ve got to come up with a name,” she recalled, “and the best I could come up with was sexual harassment of women on the job.” The phrase stuck.

New laws and workplace regulations came to pass in the hope of addressing the problem. Nevertheless, it persisted. Fast forward to 1991. That was when the lawyer and academician Anita Hill testified before an all-male — and strikingly unsympathetic — Senate committee that was holding hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court. Ms. Hill described having been sexually harassed by Justice Thomas when he was her superior at two federal agencies, the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He denied the accusations, and ascended to the Court. Yet Ms. Hill struck a chord that still reverberates.

“One of the things about my testimony, I believe, that resonated so much with women was that it seemed so regular, so much like what was going on in their day-to-day lives,” she told Retro Report.

One remedy suggested by some advocates is to stretch the bounds of so-called “sunshine in litigation” laws that several states have enacted. Applied to tort cases in general, they essentially nullify the confidentiality clauses of legal settlements if the result is to hide conditions that qualify as “public hazards.” Some advocates argue that a workplace pattern of sexual harassment deserves to be called such a hazard, but this approach has yet to be tested in the courts.

There seems scant reason to expect the Trump administration to play a leading role in tackling the problem. After the Fox News scandal broke in the summer of 2016, around the time Donald J. Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president, he was asked by a USA Today columnist what he thought should happen if his daughter Ivanka were to fall victim to similar treatment. Mr. Trump did not call for rooting out the harassers. Instead, he said, “I would like to think she would find another career or find another company if that was the case.”

Half a century ago, the makers of Virginia Slims cigarettes pitched their product to women with a slogan that spoke of new empowerment: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” At all too many workplaces they’ve come a long way, maybe.

The full article and the Retro Report video can be accessed here.

Anita Hill is a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University and a counsel to the Civil Rights & Employment practice at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.