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Standing Together to Speak Truth to Power

Posted on November 16, 2017
Anita Hill
By Lynn Yeakel

It has been 42 days since The New York Times published its first report detailing decades allegations of decades of sexual harassment and misconduct by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. In the six weeks since, increasing numbers of women – and some men – have come forward to share their personal experiences with Weinstein and other powerful men.

Finally, we are discussing a problem that has been ignored for far too long, despite having been illuminated nationally a quarter-century ago.

It’s not surprising to me that there are so many stories of sexual harassment now coming out. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), up to 85% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace at some time. Why has it taken so long to acknowledge this major problem in America? And will the momentum we’re seeing now to punish perpetrators be sustained or fade away?

These news stories bring back the emotions I felt when listening to Anita Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas’s behavior during his U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings 26 years ago.

As I listened to Anita Hill testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, I was stunned by the questions and disrespectful tone of the all-white male committee members. They just didn’t get it. Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court and women across America who understood and believed Anita Hill were enraged. Some of us even “got up off the couch” and ran for the U.S. Senate.

My familiarity with the problem of sexual harassment resulted from my role as Executive Director of Women’s Way in the 1980s. One of our member agencies was the Women’s Alliance for Job Equity (WAJE), which provided counseling and support to women who were victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. This was an emerging issue at the time and many people either didn’t take it seriously or chose to look the other way.

Fast-forward to present day. We’re finally seeing more and more individuals speaking truth to power. There is no option to return to business as usual.

We’re experiencing what Barbara Berg, an historian and the author of “Sexism in America,” described to The New York Times as “the click moment”: “It’s like, ‘Enough.’ And then there’s a snowball effect: Once you see women speaking truth to power and not being told, ‘This is just what you have to put up with,’ then it encourages other women to stand up.”

I wonder what might have happened if more women had come forward to support Anita Hill a quarter-century ago. Would we have had a “click moment” in 1991?

Laurie Ruettimann, a human resources consultant who has written extensively about harassment in the workplace, in a recent interview with NPR, said that “as a whole, in society, we're getting better at listening to one another. Women are being heard.” But she also said she was “worried that we'll be burnt out by all of these stories. As the stories turn darker, I worry that inertia will kick in.”

We must not let inertia kick in.

It’s important that we take the lessons of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and many others like it, beyond the news cycle. We need to stand up, speak up and step up when we experience or witness the abuse of power. When one woman speaks truth to power, we can stand behind her and amplify her voice. Together, we can make positive change.

Finally, when we achieve shared leadership among women and men, we will have advocates in the board room, in the C-Suite and on Capitol Hill – people who understand the reality and the consequences of sexual harassment, sexual assault and sex discrimination.

There is strength in numbers, and women must learn to act like the majority we are.