Harvey Weinstein. Donald Trump. Bill Cosby. Roger Ailes. Bill O’Reilly. Baylor University football. Uber and other Silicon Valley executives. The list of accused serial sexual predators continues to grow.
For the most part, the torrent of sordid tales involves men in power exerting power and influence over female employees, although some males have cited instances of sexual harassment as well.
There is a law against it — Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, barring employment discrimination “because of sex.”
Yet it wasn’t initially taken seriously. Its inclusion in that landmark legislation is subject of much debate —whether it was inserted by conservative Rep. Howard Smith, D-Va., as a poison pill to kill the bill given the persistent failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, or if it represented Southern concerns black women would gain more rights than white females.
Herman Edelsberg, the second head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, called it “a fluke” … “conceived out of wedlock.” It was ridiculed as the “Bunny Law,” with concerns about what the EEOC would do if a man applied to be a Playboy bunny.
The courts weren’t much better. A federal judge ruling in Corne v. Bausch and Lomb in 1975 wrote potential lawsuits would exist whenever an employee “made amorous or sexually oriented advances toward another. The only sure way an employer could avoid such charges would be to have employees who were asexual.”
In 1976 a federal court dismissed the concerns of an employee fired because her boss wondered what it would be like to have sex with “a black chick.” She refused. The ruling stated, “The attraction of males to females and females to males is a natural sex phenomenon, and it is probable that this attraction plays at least a subtle part in most personnel decisions.”
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia finally got it right in 1977 finding a supervisor pressuring an employee for sex at the risk of losing her job was deplorable. “But for her womanhood,” it stated, the employee’s “participation in sexual activity would never have been solicited.”
The U.S. Supreme Court gave Title VII some teeth in 1986 in Vinson v. Meritor Savings, ruling a female employee subjected to four years of sexual harassment by a bank vice president made for a “hostile working environment.”
Some employers, such as Fox News, have required employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements, stripping them of their rights to sue. Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson circumvented that in her case against Ailes, the network president, and received a reported $20 million settlement.
O’Reilly and Weinstein paid off women who alleged sexual harassment with nondisclosure agreements.
The EEOC receives about 12,000 annual complaints alleging sexual harassment — 83 percent by women — although it estimates three out of four individuals subjected to it won’t report the incidents. The total doesn’t include cases filed with state agencies. Single mothers, in particular, are wary of reporting harassment for fear of losing income necessary to support their families.
They cannot make the kind of decision Trump recommended for his daughter, Ivanka, during the 2016 campaign if she were harassed. “I would like to think she would find another career or find another company if that were the case.”
The Access Hollywood recording of Trump stating in 2005, “Grab them by the p—y. You can do anything,” generated considerable outrage, although some relegated it to “locker room talk.” While it led to the #NotOkay movement, the New York Times story about Weinstein has prompted prominent actresses, directors, journalists and other women subjected to his predatory pursuits to speak out.
That has produced the #MeToo grassroots tsunami including women from nearly all walks of life. More than 140 female California legislators, staff, consultants and lobbyists issued a letter stating sexual harassment is pervasive in their political environment.
“It is across all industries,” said EEOC acting chair Victoria Lipnic. “It is across income levels. It is across positions in organizations, high-level positions, lower-level positions, white-collar jobs, blue-collar jobs. It’s every day, everywhere. We’ve seen in the last year and a half celebrity-infused incidents that call more attention to it and I think that might encourage more people to file complaints. But the charges we see are the tip of the iceberg.”
In January, the EEOC proposed guidelines to prevent harassment, recommending companies train employees about civility. It is astounding that basic civility — or personal responsibility — needs to be taught. Unfortunately, for too many individuals it has taken an extended holiday, if ever part of their make-up.
That many of the mighty have recently fallen because of their abhorrent escapades may turn out to be the best teacher — in essence, fear of wrongdoing — in regard to exhibiting basic respect.