My mom was 16 when she began her first job. It was the 1950s. A high school teacher recommended her for a secretarial position with his father-in-law, a New York City attorney. She needed the job desperately as her father had died, her mother had never worked and her brother had joined the Navy. My mother lived in an immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn, where employment opportunities were scarce and jobs for women even scarcer.
When she started, she called her boss Mr. and he called her Miss. He dictated and she typed. But then came questions about whether she had a boyfriend, whether she had ever been kissed. Months later, he pinned her against a file cabinet and forcefully kissed her, putting his hand up her blouse. Terrified, she left the office, never to return. At school the next day, her teacher interrogated her about her reasons for “abandoning” the job he obtained for her. She told the truth. He didn’t believe her. So she lost her friendship with him, as well as her first job and much-needed income for her family.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was enacted. It was revolutionary. Title VII forbade discrimination on the basis of sex as well race, color, religion or national origin in hiring, promotion and firing decisions. Courts eventually extended Title VII protections to cover sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination. In the 70s and 80s, women poured into the workforce, challenging gender roles and stereotypes. For the most part, it didn’t go well. A 1976 Redbook survey found that 80 percent of respondents experienced sexual harassment on the job.
But over time, court rulings prompted businesses to affirmatively respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. Many companies established anti-harassment policies with complaint procedures, and some trained employees, supervisors and management on what constituted inappropriate behavior. I was an employment attorney, specializing in harassment, discrimination and workplace safety. Even with my expertise, and with an anti-harassment policy in place, I was subjected to sexual harassment by a client and then encouraged to participate in the “harmless flirting” in order to keep the client happy.
What I experienced was not the exception – it was the norm.
Even today, just about all the women I know have at least one story of workplace sexual harassment – a time when they didn’t feel safe, were the subject of jokes or innuendo at work, were encouraged to “be friendly” – or were assaulted. In fact, Cosmopolitan conducted a survey similar to Redbook’s in 2015 and found that one in three surveyed women reported experiencing sexual harassment at work.
Like many other companies, Fox News had an anti-harassment policy, with complaint procedures, in place. And like many other companies, it wasn’t enough. At Fox, Gretchen Carlson and at least six other women report being sexually harassed by Roger Ailes, and 21st Century Fox, the parent company of Fox News, settled with five women who alleged harassment and discrimination by Bill O’Reilly.
Clearly the policy wasn’t enough – and equally clearly, the culture at Fox enabled the harassment and abuse. The evidence is not just the complaints that came to light in recent months; it’s also that fact that only when Fox News lost advertising revenue did it decide to part ways with its star, O’Reilly.
Today, my organization works with employers, advocates and others to change the culture of workplaces. We know very well that stopping the epidemic of sexual harassment will take much more than putting a policy in place and offering occasional training. Businesses must take sustained action to address gender inequity and change norms and practices that foster and facilitate sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.
Unless they do, many companies will continue finding themselves in legal trouble, facing public relations nightmares and left without the talent of half their workforce. And millions of women will continue suffering harassment and assaults in the workplace, just like my mother did all those decades ago.