In 1975, the New York City Human Rights Commission held the first-ever public hearings in the nation on sexual harassment in the workplace — an issue which, until then, didn’t have a name — presided over by then-commissioner and famed women’s rights activist Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Nearly two decades later, in 1990, a similar hearing was held, this time in Washington D.C., which followed the accusations of Anita Hill against Justice Clarence Thomas. That hearing resulted in, among other things, the issuance of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission's guidelines recognizing sexual harassment as sex discrimination.
And on Wednesday night (Dec. 6), more than 40 years after presiding over the first hearing, now-Congresswoman Norton traveled back to New York to attend yet another, all-too timely commission hearing on workplace sexual harassment. Taking the stage before testimonies began, Norton spoke to the common thread that links these hearings together — and also nailed why recent headlines centered on high-profile perpetrators have failed to capture the full issue.
“Periodically, national interest is stirred by accusations of high-profile figures, from Clarence Thomas to Harvey Weinstein — and it’s particularly stirred when that harassment is said to have taken place in the palaces of power, from the Supreme Court and Congress to Hollywood and TV,” she said. “These are places of ultimate power and influence where women incur maximum risk in alleging sexual harassment. Yet, I believe sexual harassment is all more likely to occur in typical places involving typical men and women.
"I do not believe we have really begun to penetrate the true extent of this problem."
She commended the bravery of women, across all industries, who have broken the silence and spoken out against harassment, saying they’ve “rendered an important public service.”
“They’ve exposed a national problem that has gone unattended because it floats beneath the surface of human interaction,” she said.
However, in order for true, lasting change to be created in “typical” workplaces, Norton noted that an increased onus placed on employers is paramount. Some best practices they should adopt, she said, include: increasing training for staff on what constitutes sexual harassment and what behavior will be penalized; informing reporters of sexual harassment that they have the right to file a legal claim, even if the company has its own investigation and remedial processes; and taking the time to understand what remedies the victim desires, be it compensation or punishment for the perpetrator.
Outside of holding employers to higher expectations, Norton added that hearings — like the one held Wednesday night — are an essential extension of movements like #MeToo. It’s through government-enabled mediums like this, she said, that we can ensure some of the most vulnerable women’s voices are heard. For that reason, Wednesday’s hearing focused especially on women in male-dominated industries, women of color, immigrant workers, and LGBTQ workers, looking at how each interected with NYC-based industries like hospitality, retail, and fashion.
More than two dozen people testified in front of the commission, including Nantasha Williams, who spoke to the sexual harassment she’s experienced over the course of her career in politics.
“There were those who saw me as eye candy. I often thought that maybe it was something I had said, or an outfit I may have worn,” Williams said. “This began to strain my working situation, as people who I felt should be trusted colleagues began to make sexual suggestions — some subtle and some not, but all wrong and inappropriate.”
Another testifier, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, spoke on behalf of a woman who had contacted her advocacy office seeking help.
“(She) was harassed in a restaurant job by coworkers because of her sexual orientation,” she said. “The ongoing harassment caused her so much stress that she had a panic attack and blacked out at the restaurant. The doctor told her it was likely the high state of anxiety that caused her to black out, and she received a large bill from the hospital that she cannot afford to pay.”
James added that while we know as many as 85 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in their workplace, according to the EEOC, what we can’t know is the full, pervading impact of that harassment.
“What we can never know is what we lost,” she said. “How many women were forced to quit jobs or left entire industries? How many women have shelled their hopes and dreams or lost their livelihoods because of retaliation?... We have a responsibility to do better to protect New Yorkers like this.”
And though that responsibility should ultimately be placed on the shoulders of employers, government agencies, and above all, the perpetrators of harassment themselves, the key to getting us to that point is having more women like James and Williams share their stories, Norton said.
“Yes, the burden is always going to be on those who experience the offense — and women are taking that burden,” she said.
Did you miss the hearing but have testimony you want to share? The New York City Human Rights Commission will continue accepting written testimony through Dec. 31 before publishing a report with key findings in early 2018.