In October 1991, Long Dong Silver and pubic hair on a can of Coke were subjects introduced to the American public via Anita Hill's testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee considering Clarence Thomas' nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. That hearing was the first time many women -- and men -- learned that unwanted sexual conduct at work had a name, that it was illegal, and that there was something you could do about it.
October marks the 20th anniversary of those hearings. Since then sexual harassment has been a matter of heated discussion at the water cooler and in the media -- but it hasn't gone away.
Just this year, Cindy, a single mom and sole support for her family, was fired in Virginia for refusing to go to her boss' condo to have sex. Ellen, a Colorado saleswoman, begged her employer repeatedly to protect her from a harassing, longtime customer. When he sexually assaulted her in the showroom, the police officer called to the scene defined her workplace as a "hostile work environment," and advised her to quit, which she did. She was still out of work eight months later.
As the director of a national organization that advocates for women's rights in the workplace, I hear these heart-wrenching stories every day.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund chief, was at the center of one of the most recent, high profile sexual harassment cases. His accuser, a hotel housekeeper of African descent named Nafissatou Diallo, focused attention on an industry in which the mostly female workers of color are largely invisible to the public.
While workplace sexual harassment and assault are still regrettably common, double standards are pervasive in the media and the court system. Typically the accuser's whole life becomes fodder for examination, yet the accused does not have to answer for alleged past misdeeds. While things Diallo said in the past were used to imply that she's not telling the truth now, reporters and prosecutors did not imply the same thing about powerful Strauss-Kahn. No one said, "The jury will have a hard time believing DSK given the accusation against him by a young French writer that he tried to rape her when she interviewed him in 2002."
This case reminds us of what many learned in 1991 -- that sexual harassment and assault really do happen on the job, and that we should never dismiss complaints about unacceptable behavior as hysteria or untruths. Both Anita Hill and Nafissatou Diallo set powerful examples for women who experience sexual harassment or assault, that standing up for your right to be free of unwanted sexual attention is the right thing to do.
In 2011, there are steps that everyone can and must take to stop and prevent sexual harassment.
If you experience sexual harassment on the job, remember that you are not alone. Trust your instincts, and don't blame yourself. Be assertive and say no clearly. Document every incident in detail. Look for witnesses and other evidence from co-workers or former employees. Research your employer's and your union's channels for reporting sexual harassment, and use them. As we learned from Anita and Nafissatou, addressing sexual harassment in the workplace is difficult, so seek emotional support. If all else fails, take legal action.
If you are not the one being harassed, support your co-worker by validating that harassment is wrong, affirming her or his feelings, and listening without judgment. Be sure that your behavior isn't part of the problem. Challenge the harasser's inappropriate behavior. Work with others toward a harassment-free work environment, whether that harassment is sexual in nature or based on someone's race, sexual orientation or other characteristics.
If you're a manager, you have special responsibilities. You also have special opportunities to be part of the solution. Be a role model. Be a good listener. Be objective and consistent. Be informed, and be willing to ask for help when you need it. Be vigilant, and don't wait for a crisis.
Employers can develop, update and uniformly implement policies to stop and prevent sexual harassment. Emphasize prevention through education and training. Clearly define procedures, give several options for reporting, and be sure that investigations are prompt and fair. Administer appropriate discipline, regardless of the position of the harasser.
The 20th anniversary of Anita Hill's courageous appearance before U.S. Senators in the Clarence Thomas hearings provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the continued pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace, and what each of us can do to eradicate it and create workplaces that are welcoming, safe and respectful for all.
For more about what you can do at work and through the legal system about sexual harassment, call the 9to5 Job Survival Helpline at 1-800-522-0925 or visit us online at www.9to5.org.
Linda Meric is the executive director of 9to5 National Association of Working Women, a national membership-based organization of low-income women working to improve policies on issues that directly affect them.
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