Anita Hill, Two Decades Later

Last week, Anita Hill appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  She was there to promote a new documentary about her experiences in 1991, when she testified to a US Senate committee that she had been sexually harassed at work by Clarence Thomas, at the time a nominee for the position of US Supreme Court Justice. (Stewart’s interview with Hill is here for American viewers; Canadian viewers can see it here.)

In her interview with Stewart, Hill explained that she got involved in the documentary to help educate younger workers about why sexual harassment is still an important workplace issue.

They [are] going into a different place than I went into, but they really don’t know how we got to that place. So the movie really is about looking at our history and learning from it….It doesn’t feel that long ago to you and me, but there is now a generation of people who are going into work and experiencing this. They see the signs now that say, you know, sexual harassment is prohibited…but unfortunately what we know is that the problems continue, and I just think that we’re at a point now where we can move to that next level. So we know sexual harassment exists, but do we have the right processes in place to get women and men coming forward?

I remember Anita Hill’s experiences very clearly. Not only because of the huge amount of media coverage of her testimony (including live telecasts of the Senate hearings), but because what she described resonated so strongly with what was going on around the same time at the University of Alberta, where I was a Ph.D. student.

Anita Hill on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, March 13, 2014. (credit: thecomedynetwork.ca)

Anita Hill on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, March 13, 2014. (credit: thecomedynetwork.ca)

In November 1989,  a gunman killed 14 female engineering students at the Université de Montréal. Then, at the University of Alberta just five weeks later, the engineering students held a Skit Night. At that event, during one skit with a female student that involved fake guns, members of the audience started shouting “Shoot the bitch” at the performers.

The reaction to this event was immediate and fierce condemnation. Not only was there disgust within the university itself, but also in the community, the province, and the country – and in the engineering profession. Several Alberta engineering alumni threatened to stop their financial donations to the university, and to stop taking the university’s co-op students for work experience at their engineering firms. As a result of the strong reaction – and as a result of recognizing that poor treatment of women was not just a problem in the Faculty of Engineering – the university president established a President’s Commission on Equality and Respect on Campus. The Commission produced a report with 68 recommendations. Many of these recommendations were implemented very quickly, and many are still in place, either explicitly or as the foundations for subsequent policies and decisions.

I represented the university’s Graduate Students’ Association on one of the subcommittees of the President’s Commission. I went into the experience thinking that the Commission was just a meaningless public relations stunt to clean up the university’s reputation, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. Everyone on the subcommittee – which included students, faculty members and staff  – was deeply disturbed about what was going on at the university, and had volunteered to be on the subcommittee because they wanted that behaviour to stop. And it soon became clear to me why everyone was so determined. Some of the stories the subcommittee heard  about the discrimination and harassment experienced by female staff, faculty and students – and the university’s inability or unwillingness to seriously address it – were truly horrifying.

So in the fall of 1991, when Anita Hill was testifying, the experiences she described were just another example to me of how things were really wrong.  Not just “wrong” in something unjust happening to a specific person, but “wrong” in a bigger sense – that systems, structures, and institutions not only tolerated that kind of behaviour, but refused to do anything about it. Hill’s courage and determination in speaking out, knowing full well how strongly she would be attacked, meant a lot to me. It still does. And I admire Hill for continuing to speak out, even though she deals with the fallout of her decision to this day.

Things have gotten better in some ways since 1991. Hill’s testimony certainly brought workplace sexual harassment “into the light”, as Stewart put it, and there’s now definitely more awareness of what sexual harassment is and why it’s wrong. And in Canada, at least, the legislation to deal with the problem has improved, including some recognition that bullying and other forms of non-sexual harassment in the workplace also need to be addressed. But when I talk with my students about sexual harassment in the workplace, the impression I get from them is that most employers and co-workers are now smart enough not to engage in blatant harassment (the “do this and I’ll give you that” type) – but the more subtle and insidious forms of sexual harassment are alive and well. And that’s really discouraging.

So I’m glad that the documentary about Hill has been made. And I hope, as she does, that it serves to educate younger workers about “how we got to that place” and makes them think about what can be done next.  I must admit I’m a little less optimistic than her about the possibility of “mov[ing] to the next level” and dealing firmly and decisively with workplace harassment of all kinds – that’s overdue and then some – but I would be thrilled if the documentary contributes to making that happen. We need it.

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