How do we get rid of sexual harassment in the workplace?
In a telephone interview late last month, I posed that question to a woman who arguably knows more about the challenges of harassment than anyone: Brandeis University professor Anita Hill.
Hill put sexual harassment on the national agenda when she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 that Clarence Thomas had harassed her when he was her boss at two federal agencies. The setting was Thomas's confirmation hearings after being nominated to a position on the Supreme Court.
Thomas denied Hill's allegations and got the job. Hill ultimately became a feminist legend for taking the risk of speaking out about her experiences. Today she is a professor of social policy, law and women's studies at Brandeis.
She told me that, to begin fixing the problem, we have to stop coddling harassers.
"If I could wave a magic wand, I would at the very least make sure that every time there is a finding of harassment, especially for people who are recalcitrant and unapologetic, or serial harassers, there are severe consequences," she said. "We have to be willing to make the hard choices, even with people we otherwise value."
Giving Ailes a $40 million severance package is a big-time example of coddling, Hill said.
And then there's the absurdity of his resignation letter. When I told Hill that Ailes boasted in the letter that he took "particular pride" in his role advancing the careers of women, Hill let out a little chuckle. "I don't even know what to say to that," she said. "He's not even acknowledging his behavior that so many women described."
To chip away at the problem, Hill says it's important that social scientists keep measuring harassment to the degree they can. That's a challenge given the pervasiveness of mandatory arbitration agreements in which companies force employees -- before a job is official -- to agree never to sue. When complaints are heard behind closed doors, there's a lot less data to measure, to say nothing of the ability of harassers to quarantine their records and move on to the next job.
(If, that is, they lose their jobs at all).
Mandatory arbitration agreements "hide the real numbers and they keep us from being able to gather information that looks at the whole and makes changes," she said.
Anyone considering whether to go forward with a harassment complaint would be wise to investigate what process, if any, their employer has in place. Hill suggested that women find out how the grievance system has worked for their peers in the past so that they can have some assurance their case will be handled appropriately.
Another important area for women to look into: How has the company handled men who were investigated and found to have been harassers? It would be frustrating "to go through the process, gather all your evidence and have an adjudication in your favor and there not be a consequence," said Hill.
Filing a complaint at work, in arbitration or in court is a high-stress process, so women also need a support network. "Make sure you have people around you either in your workplace or outside who will help you through this, whether it's family members or friends or professional counseling," she said.
The lawsuit that former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed against Roger Ailes last month has had the welcome effect of generating extensive news coverage of sexual harassment and emboldening other women to come forward.
But it would be a mistake to conclude that Carlson's circumstances could be easily duplicated in other cases, said Hill.
"The common denominator of course is the description of the behavior she says she experienced," said Hill. "The behavior has not changed -- it's not new."
But "it's hard to use this as a predictor of what's going to happen in the future," said Hill, because women who work at a big-box store, or wait tables, or serve as an underling to an office supervisor will not have Carlson's name recognition or clout to move their case into the headlines and inspire others to come forward.
Although she had many supporters during and immediately after she testified against Thomas, Hill also was mercilessly trashed by detractors who said she'd made it all up. She received hate mail and rape and death threats. In his best-selling book "The Real Anita Hill," author David Brock attacked Hill and defended Thomas only to later confess that he'd lied and deliberately tried to "ruin Hill's credibility."
Over the years, Hill gained hero status for being the first woman to risk taking such a public role in telling her sexual harassment story. Would she do it again? "Oh yes I would," she said. "I would."