The Workplace’s New Anita Hill Moment
Each day we seem to reach a new nadir in the spectacle that is the 2016 presidential election. The week since the bombshell release of the taped conversation between Donald Trump and former Access Hollywood host Billy Bush has been filled with denials and accusations. The denials strengthen as the accusations mount, leaving most sickened by both the race and the thousands of stories filling social media every day by women who have faced their own “locker room” moments.
This story transcends campaign politics. It is a story of a continuing crisis in the workplace with respect to the sexual harassment of women. Trump’s vulgar words and Bush’s complicity, Trump’s bellowing denials that rely on the time-delay in women coming forward as his shield, and the dismissal of Trump’s words and alleged actions by those who seek to protect him and his candidacy reflect a workplace culture that too often condones the objectification of women by looking away or by converting humiliation into humor.
When I work with organizations on generational issues, I often speak about the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings as an example of a defining cultural event. After silently enduring sexually charged comments from her supervisor, Anita Hill came forward with her story because she thought that those passing judgment on Clarence Thomas’ fitness to serve on the nation’s highest court should know what she experienced.
The impact of those hearings proved to be a powerful moment for women in the workplace. The image of Anita Hill’s quiet dignity before an awkward group of senators who refused to hear what she had to say — many of whom tried to impugn her — triggered a national response. That moment in time changed the conversation in the American workplace about behaviors that constitute sexual harassment and was followed by laws and regulations that have helped significantly.
But this week’s avalanche of accusations against Trump and stories from women about what they have endured in the workplace demonstrate that more is needed. Laws and policies alone are insufficient in a workplace where people feel they are not supported, or where there is no process to address issues in a way that women feel safe and protected from recriminations. Women should not be forced to choose between their career and their dignity, as we saw play out in the accusations against Fox News chief, Roger Ailes.
The combination of Billy Bush’s frat boy encouragement and Trump’s shocking comments is a tragic commentary on the misogyny women can face as they make their way in the workplace. Bush chose to laugh at Trump’s description of women as a compilation of body parts available to him as a star. The (now suspended) Today Show co-host’s sickening reinforcement of Trump’s exploitive behaviors demonstrates how sexual harassment is condoned in workplace settings. And his behavior demonstrates sexual exploitation at its most insidious.
Bush responded with an immediate attempt at a mea culpa by stating that this was a disgraceful mistake made when he was younger. Is he suggesting that sexual harassment is appropriate when committed by immature men? Are women expected to wait for their male colleagues to fully mature before they can be respected at work? And what is that magic age of maturity? Trump was nearly 60, with a pregnant wife, when he was taped making his offensive comments.
Sexual harassment remains a real and compelling workplace issue. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace reported on the prevalence of sexual harassment and its significant negative impacts to physical and psychological health. Donald Trump’s comments, Bush’s complicity, and the words of defenders who criticize the victims demonstrate the pernicious ways in which power can be abused.
There are no excuses. It is time for men and women to stand together and use this moment to change the workplace forever. It is time to permanently reject language that objectifies women and agree that we will not accept the notion that a “locker-room” is a safe space for discourse that normalizes the notion of sexual assault. As Michelle Obama eloquently stated, that does a disservice to good and decent men everywhere.
It is time to stand up for our children’s future at work and end the abuse of power in the workplace. This may be the singular way in which we can redeem the sad spectacle of Trump’s campaign.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen, the author of You Raised Us, Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams, is the president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.