Q&A | After Anita Hill: What Has Changed About Sexual Harassment

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Anita Hill takes oath, 12 October 1991, before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington D.C.. Hill filed sexual harassment charges against US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

This week marked 20 years since law professor Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee accusing then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in a landmark case. We asked Kathleen Peratis, an employment discrimination attorney in New York, about how those hearings helped change the conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace today.

What was your reaction to the hearings as a discrimination attorney?

PERATIS: I remember it like I was watching a movie of my own life. I feel like I was holding my breath for the days of the hearing. It actually changed everything in my professional life. There was before Anita Hill, and there's after Anita Hill.

How would you describe the view of sexual harassment in the workplace before and after Hill's testimony?

For years, as the theory was being developed that there was such a thing as illegal sexual harassment ... the idea that it was illegal for a boss to make sexual advances — or the idea that having a sex-charged atmosphere in the office — the idea that both of those things were not illegal and they were just the personal peccadilloes of the people involved and that the women should just grow up and develop a sense of humor, all of those things were turned upside down and inside out by the Anita Hill hearings.

But even now, I once in a while deal with an adversary in a matter in which I'm representing a woman who's claiming a hostile environment or sexual harassment, and the adversary says to me, "Why didn't she just quit if it was so terrible?" So I deal with exactly that all the time, even in 2011, but much less often.

What changed about the way that you practiced sexual harassment law after Anita Hill?

What changed was, first of all, the claim of sexual harassment began to be understood as a legitimate and serious claim of workplace discrimination. It wasn't just a boys' club and boys behaving badly, and the woman should just develop a sense of humor and get over it. At the point of the Anita Hill hearings and after, you could actually have a serious, grown-up conversation and claim without being ridiculed — that that kind of behavior was and should be illegal. That it should be as illegal as firing someone because they're black.

At the time of the hearing, what laws were on the books about sexual harassment in the workplace?

Title VII, the employment discrimination law, existed, which outlawed sex discrimination, which outlawed discriminating against a person because of her gender or his gender. ... Nobody interpreted it to cover not promoting a woman because she refused her boss' sexual advances. Nobody really thought in terms of a sexualized atmosphere and the demand for sexual favors as being sex discrimination. It was just something that happened in the workplace.

In general, how far do you think we've come in recognizing workplace harassment in the past 20 years?

We've advanced a million miles by understanding that at least it's a credible claim. And there will be arguments and there always are arguments about the facts, but if a woman opposes sexual advances or complains about a sexualized atmosphere — it's pretty widely understood that that is illegal. Twenty-five years ago, that simply was not the case.

Kathleen Peratis is an employment discrimination attorney and a partner at the firm Outten and Golden. She is also co-chairing a one-day conference this weekend at Hunter College called "Sex, Power and Speaking the Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later."