Sexual Harassment at Work: What's a Victim To Do?

This weekend my boyfriend and I had a chance to see Anita (2013), a brilliant documentary about Anita Hill’s testimony during the confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas. Several thoughts were going through my mind while watching the film. The first was the amount of questioning Professor Hill received about herself, her relationships, and her background. The second was the fact that all of the senators–over the age of 40, white, presumably heterosexual men–were extremely uncomfortable asking questions about the incident. And third, how their demeanor seemed to be in stark contrast to Professor Hill’s responses. There she sat, an intelligent, accomplished, young, black woman, answering questions that undoubtedly made me blush, but answering them without missing a beat. She did not seem uncomfortable.

Now, this documentary did not show the entire Clarence Thomas process. It certainly did not show how long Justice Thomas had to endure questioning about his behavior in victimizing his subordinates. It seemed clear to me that most of the questioners did not understand sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment in the civil litigation sense can be anything from sexualized, sex, or gender based negative comments to rape(!) in the workplace. In 2004, about 31% of women and 7% of men were sexually harassed in the workplace. About 62% of victims took no action. Not many women can be in Professor Hill’s position. They're afraid of being blamed and they’re afraid of retaliation, and rightly so. However, while there are severe social and employment consequences to complaining about sexual harassment, there are severe legal consequences to not complaining or waiting too long to complain.

So what’s a sexual harassment victim to do? First, make sure the harasser knows that the harassment is unwelcome. This is probably the most difficult as it may seem like you’re not a team player or that you can’t take a joke (if the harassment is seemingly minor). Second, document it when it is happening. All you need is the time and date and a brief description of what happened. Third, find out if your employer has a complaint procedure and follow it if you’re able. And finally, find your allies. Talk to your friends, family, and others at work who you think would be on your side. It takes a lot of courage to stand the way Professor Hill stood, even today. For more information on what you can do if you're experiencing harassment at work, see this article on 10 Things You Need to Know if You're Sexually Harassed at Work.

-- HWLJ staff