How We as AAUW Can Fight Sexual Harassment

March 15, 2018
Anita Hill, J.D., testifying before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on October 14, 1991. Getty Images.

Anita Hill, J.D., testifying before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on October 14, 1991. Getty Images.

This story originally appeared in the winter 2018 Outlook magazine.

During her history-making testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in October 1991, Anita Hill, J.D., made a remarkable understatement: “It would have been more comfortable to remain silent. … I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent.”

Her testimony about allegedly being sexually harassed by now Associate Justice Clarence Thomas didn’t harpoon his confirmation to the Supreme Court, ultimately, but it did embolden women and men all over the country to fight back against an ugly reality that has pervaded workplaces since time immemorial: sexual harassment.

Following Hill’s testimony sexual harassment complaints logged by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — which was, ironically, the workplace in which Hill testified that she had been harassed — jumped from 6,883 annually in 1991 to 15,475 a decade later.

The year 2017 saw a similar momentum as a dizzying number of powerful men in Hollywood, journalism, politics, medicine, and more were accused of sexual misconduct, much of which amounted to workplace sexual harassment. In the years after Hill’s testimony, the conversation around gender in the workplace changed, record numbers of women were elected to Congress, and more people pursued justice after facing workplace harassment and discrimination.

It’s unclear where the current momentum will lead, aside from some accused harassers losing their jobs (and some very notably not). But what is clear is that AAUW must continue to work on this issue in the most effective way we can, finding a space in which we can contribute to the solution and complement the work of others.

Encouraging women’s presence and safety in educational and professional spaces has always been central to AAUW’s work. Such AAUW research reports as 2005’s Drawing the Line: Sexual Harassment on Campus and 2011’s Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School surveyed college students and middle school students, respectively, about their experiences with harassment, and AAUW has been a leader advocating for data, solutions, and compliance with laws that are supposed to protect people from harassment at work and school.

Cover art for the Winter 2018 issue of AAUW Outlook Magazine. Quotation from Anita Hill.

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This article originally appeared in AAUW Outlook magazine.

“Sexual harassment is still rampant today, and it starts well before you start your first job,” says AAUW Chief Executive Officer Kimberly Churches. “It’s a pervasive problem that transcends industry, geography, political ideology, and even age.”

Recently AAUW released an analysis of the Civil Rights Data Collection. The analysis found that more than 79 percent of public schools with students in grades 7–9 reported zero incidents of sexual harassment in the 2013–14 school year. AAUW analysis of college and university data revealed that 89 percent of colleges reported zero incidents of campus rape in 2015.

Of course, the fact that a majority of schools report zero harassment flies in the face of what parents, students, and campus professionals know, which is that harassment is commonplace. AAUW’s research has shed light on the prevalence of the issue: Crossing the Line revealed that nearly half of students in grades 7–12 face sexual harassment, and Drawing the Line found that two-thirds of college students do also. Sexual assault, which is considered an extreme form of sexual harassment, is experienced by about one in five women during their college years, according to Department of Justice studies.

And those experiences don’t stop at graduation. “If it’s left unchecked, harassment at school becomes a learned behavior that continues into adulthood. It establishes a norm that harassment is normal and that perpetrators won’t be held accountable,” says Churches. “Unfortunately we see that reflected in the climate we observe on campuses and in workplaces today.”

The plaintiffs that AAUW’s Legal Advocacy Fund (LAF) has been supporting since 1981 know firsthand that harassment is alive and well in some workplaces. Long before the current movements to provide financial support for those seeking justice through the judicial system, the LAF supported precedent-setting cases that deal with sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination: In Grudzinski v. University of California, Irvine, Medical Center, the plaintiff alleged that reporting harassment during her surgical residency ended up in her termination. In Arakawa v. University of Wisconsin, Madison, a former graduate student alleged she was sexually harassed by a professor in her oncology lab and also subject to harassment for her Asian, Pacific Islander, and Latina heritage. In Duffy/Jackson v. California Polytechnic State University, two women alleged sexual harassment and discrimination from the same male faculty members in their department.

Some of these cases date back 20 years and had varied outcomes (you can find more details at www.aauw.org), but a recent LAF case demonstrates how sexual harassment is still affecting women’s career progress. Women tend to be underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in no small part because of the climate of the workplaces, and the case of Gosset v. Lasch, Cooper, et al. is a chilling example. Nathalie Gosset, who is an active AAUW member in California and a supporter of AAUW Tech Trek, was in arbitration regarding her experiences and was supported by LAF. She alleged that she was subjected to persistent sexual harassment by her supervisor and that her complaints were disregarded before she faced retaliation. She had worked for 30 years as an engineer and made significant contributions to the advancement of technology in her career.

Gosset’s story is included in broadcaster Gretchen Carlson’s recent book Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back (2017, Center Street). The book describes how Gosset loved her career and her team and never felt undermined, even though she was the only woman in management. Then she met her new supervisor in 2007, who she says used vulgar sexual language that shocked her and her male colleagues alike. When she complained to human resources, she was met with skepticism about her motives and a suggestion that she had “unresolved father-daughter issues.” She was terminated shortly after complaining and filed suit in 2016. AAUW adopted her case the same year, and the issue has been resolved as of early 2018.

AAUW research has shown that nearly half of student in grades 7-12 reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, yet more than three-fourths of schools reported zero incidents.

As sexual harassment is treated more seriously and as high-profile movements and efforts gain steam, AAUW needs to build on our body of work and our particular strengths as an organization to figure out how we can complement—not necessarily replicate—other movements’ efforts to have a greater collective impact. Churches cautions that AAUW shouldn’t get caught in an echo chamber of the same work that others are doing: “We don’t need to follow. Let’s find the space where we can lead and get to solutions through research, awareness building, programs, and trainings that work and engaging all employees and employers—not just women—in the conversations.”

One of AAUW’s alumnae, 2011–12 American Fellow Lauren J. Germain, Ph.D., insists that AAUW has made an impact on this issue, in part by supporting research like hers. During her fellowship year she collected survivors’ stories about sexual assault on campus. Germain’s project, which was published in book form as Campus Sexual Assault: College Women Respond (2016, Johns Hopkins University Press), combats the shame and blame that survivors often carry. “My AAUW fellowship let me focus on really listening to survivors and then working to bring their voices together and share them publically to hopefully lead to fuller understanding of survivor agency,” says Germain.

Germain promised to protect the identities of her respondents, so she changed names and blended some stories. She says the survivor network works hard to keep each other safe, because speaking out can itself be traumatic or result in retaliation. For that and other reasons many survivors never report their harassment or assault, yet the experiences can negatively affect educational or career trajectories. That’s why AAUW members and advocates have worked for years to support the Clery Act’s requirements to disclose campus crime statistics, the Violence Against Women Act’s resources and provisions to improve campus safety, the Civil Rights Data Collection data on harassment, and the Office for Civil Rights’s compliance efforts at the U.S. Department of Education. In addition, AAUW has repeatedly led the charge to protect and fully implement Title IX’s protections. AAUW has prioritized addressing sexual harassment and violence in education not only by advocating at the federal, state, and local levels for these policies but also by educating the public about survivors’ options on reporting their harassment or assault and weighing in during complex rulemakings that accompany federal laws.

Having informed voices at the table during these conversations is invaluable, whether it’s in Congress or in a human resources department. Because, unfortunately, the people who can do something about harassment don’t always understand survivors’ responses to their trauma. Germain hopes that projects like hers and the current wave of story sharing will lead to a fuller understanding of survivor agency and what policies and programs can help them and prevent further abuse. “Much of the messaging students are exposed to today doesn’t take into account how survivors actually respond to attacks, and this can lead to guilt and self-blame in an already stressful moment,” says Germain, who is now the director of evaluation, assessment, and research for the State University of New York Upstate Medical University.

Experiencing harassment is very unsettling—and it’s not always clear what can be done about it. Even people who are familiar with antidiscrimination work don’t necessarily know what tools are available to survivors. Germain tells a story in her book about a friend of hers saying, “I’m not interested in Title IX, because I’m not a big fan of sports.” Title IX, the 1972 legislation that prohibits discrimination based on sex in educational programs, is a crucial tool in school settings to protect anyone on campuses from harassment and assault. After attending a lecture, her friend realized how Title IX can help her fight harassment in her research lab and help create a better climate for women in STEM.  “I’ve had the privilege of growing up in the time of Title IX and, while imperfect, a world without it is scarier than I think many people realize,” says Germain. She sees her friend’s story as one that reflects the significance of Title IX but also how little popular media discusses the nondiscrimination resources that can be utilized to fight harassment and assault.

Sexual harassment is pervasive, pernicious, and complex. How do we go about stemming such a problem? Some approaches and scaled solutions are being formed in the drafting of AAUW’s strategic planning process. But some of what AAUW is already doing is educating people to know their rights.

First and foremost people should know that sexual harassment at work is discrimination and violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In educational settings Title IX also applies not only to students but also to faculty and staff. Though some people disregard the growing publicity around women’s accounts of harassment and lament that the lines of friendliness and harassment are too blurred, sexual harassment can be easily defined. Sexual harassment means unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other behaviors that are used to sexually coerce or create a hostile work environment.

AAUW recently published an online resource that details your rights and gives tips from the perspective of a victim, a bystander, and an employer.

“Educating people about their rights under Title VII and Title IX and ensuring schools and employers uphold the letter of the law are areas that likely will be priorities in the strategic plan,” says Churches.

The resource marries AAUW expertise in legislation, legal action, human resources, and leadership. The following are some broad recommendations.

If you experience harassment put everything in writing and consult your employee handbook if it has a sexual harassment policy outlined. If you feel comfortable, tell your supervisor. If not, confide in friends and family. Think about contacting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—even if you don’t want to file a complaint, the commission has resources that might help. If you do want to file a complaint, you have 180 days in which to do so.

If you’re a bystander you should put everything in writing, report the behavior if you feel comfortable, and consider contacting the EEOC yourself. Don’t forget that bystanders are absolutely affected by the toxic culture that harassment can create.

If you’re an employer there are things you can do for prevention but also to foster an environment that welcomes feedback and reporting. The EEOC recommends that you make it clear to your employees that people who come forward won’t face retaliation and that corrective action will be taken when harassment is discovered. You should also designate human resources professionals to investigate complaints when they come up, conduct climate surveys to evaluate what workers experience, provide trainings, encourage bystander reporting, and model good behavior among leadership.

Around the time of the 1991 hearing with Anita Hill, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) spoke on the Senate floor about the cumulative effect of not listening and considering women’s experiences: “To any victim of sexual harassment or sexual abuse or sexual violence, either in the street or even in your own home, the message is, nobody is going to take you seriously. Not even the United States Senate.”

Although there’s been a sea change in attitudes about harassment and assault in the last few decades, recent revelations have proven that we haven’t come nearly far enough. In too many of the cases that saw major results in the last year—producer Harvey Weinstein and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar come to mind—there had been decades of testimony that hadn’t been heard or taken seriously.

As we consider how AAUW’s work will impact the scourge of sexual harassment moving forward, it’s important to look back at the foundation and breadth of work that AAUW has already done. “I know AAUW can make an impact — AAUW has made an impact for many, many years,” says Germain. “AAUW leverages a long and powerful history of action with support of current initiatives. It is an honor to be connected to the organization.”

“We don’t need to follow. Let’s find the space where we can lead and get to solutions through research, awareness building, programs, and trainings that work and engaging all employees and employers — not just women — in the conversations.”

— AAUW Chief Executive Officer Kimberly Churches

AAUW as a community has never hesitated to take action on the pressing issues of the day. Already branches are taking on sexual harassment in their programming, and members and staff continue to build on a legacy of multifaceted work: conducting research, advocating for solutions, funding academic projects, and more. One of AAUW’s three priorities—which are still being finalized in the strategic plan—is economic security, which includes workplace issues and Title VII. Because sexual harassment at its core affects women’s livelihoods, it affects their economic security in turn.

Everyone deserves to work and learn in safety. Together, we can establish equity as a new normal. You can help build and bolster AAUW’s work to make a meaningful impact on this issue by giving feedback on the strategic plan when the draft is available this spring and signing up to be a Two-Minute Activist.


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