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Bias and bright spots for women at work, Hill says

by Sari Staver

Anita Hill spoke about harassment and discrimination last<br>week in San Francisco. Photo: Sari Staver
Anita Hill spoke about harassment and discrimination last
week in San Francisco. Photo: Sari Staver  

A quarter of a century after Anita Hill's accusations about workplace sexual harassment fell on deaf ears in a Senate confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the Brandeis University law professor said that the climate for women in the workplace has improved but still has a long way to go.

Thanks in part to women feeling increasingly comfortable to share their stories, people are now seeing more "open public discussions" of sexual harassment, said Hill.

While many of the same problems of discrimination still exist, she pointed to a number of "bright spots," since then, including the appointment of three women to the U.S. Supreme Court as well as the establishment of new organizations, such as Black Lives Matter, fighting for the rights of minorities.

Speaking to a sold-out audience at San Francisco's Nourse Theater April 20, Hill recounted her ordeal when she came forward to describe the repeated instances of sexual harassment by Thomas, who was her supervisor when Hill was a government attorney.

Sponsored by the Oakland-based Kapor Center for Social Impact, Hill's talk came on the heels of UC Berkeley settling a sexual harassment suit against former law school dean Sujit Choudhry and Fox News' firing of star Bill O'Reilly, after the company settled complaints with five women for millions of dollars, although it did not admit any wrongdoing.

Hill spoke during a 90-minute conversation with Ellen Pao, the former Silicon Valley investment partner, who in 2012 filed a gender discrimination suit against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins that was decided in favor of the company after a 2015 trial. Pao is now the chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Kapor Center.

NPR's Michele Norris moderated the discussion.

Introducing Hill and Pao, Freada Kapor Klein, Ph.D., a longtime workplace advocate and partner at the nonprofit, said, "We owe a debt of gratitude" to these women, who each took a "risky" step in speaking out about workplace harassment. While both technically lost their legal battles, said Kapor Klein, "they won in the court of public opinion."

Following Hill's 1991 televised testimony about Thomas' inappropriate workplace behavior, "a wave of women" ran for office the following year, electing four to the Senate and raising the count of women in the House of Representatives from 28 to 47. In addition, the number of complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission jumped from 3,349 to 5,607, said Kapor Klein.

Pao's charges against an influential partner at her Silicon Valley firm "ignited the conversation [about bias in technology] that was way too silent and dormant," said Kapor Klein.

"Still," said Kapor Klein, "too little has changed."

Hill spoke passionately about her decision to come forward to testify about Thomas during the Senate hearings to fill the seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall.

When Senate staffers called Hill, having heard that she'd had some harassment problems with Thomas, "I could've stayed silent," she said.

At the time, however, Hill was teaching law at the University of Oklahoma, and felt she had "a special obligation" to stand up for the values in respecting the law that she was trying to instill in her students.

Having personally benefitted from court decisions, such as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional, Hill said she knew "what the court and the law can do for people with limited opportunities."

"I knew in my heart of hearts (Thomas) did not deserve to be ruling on cases that would impact people's lives," she said. "The integrity of the court was at stake."

Thomas, in allegedly repeatedly harassing Hill on the job, "acted as if he was above the law and should not be the final adjudicator" as a Supreme Court justice, she added.

During the hearing, Thomas denied the allegations.

Pao told the audience she came forward "only after I saw [harassment] happening to other women" in the firm.

"When I thought it was just about me, I felt I could just work harder," she said. When it was obvious the problem was widespread, she filed suit "with great reluctance."

"I didn't see any other way to get it to stop," she added.

Hill said that she has been encouraged by the feedback she has gotten from people about her willingness to come forward, including a letter she received from a 12-year-old girl, inspired by Hill, who had testified about sexual abuse she suffered because she "didn't want anyone else to go through" a similar experience. Hill also described a man who told her that her testimony reminded him of the child abuse he endured while his family refused to listen.

"We may think we can handle" abuse and harassment on our own, said Hill, "but such an approach is not healing," she said.

Because sexual harassment often begins in colleges and universities, prevention programs should start there, said Hill.

"We see the patterns of behavior and exclusion" beginning in school, she said.

If harassment isn't halted in school, "the pipeline of problems" will enter the workplace, she said.

On Thursday (April 27), the Kapor Center will release a national study with findings from a survey of a wide cross section of people who have recently left the technology sector. According to the center's chief communications officer, Eric Wingerter, the survey follows a number of recent high-profile resignations in the tech industry, including Twitter, Uber, and Google.

"So we know that in some cases inequality, discrimination and bias in tech jobs leads to turnover, but this is the first time that anyone has attempted to quantify the problem [of] what's driving people out and why," Wingerter said.

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