As long as women have been doing paid work, they have had to contend with sexism. It’s been inseparable from the experience of trying to earn a living and build a career. But 1991 was a turning point for the issue of sexual harassment entering public discourse. It was the year that Anita Hill testified to Congress that her former boss and Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had repeatedly sexually harassed her.
Now, 26 years later, revelations of rampant harassment and sexist work cultures are coming out of Silicon Valley regularly. Have we made any progress? We spoke to Anita Hill about how today’s environment compares to what she faced nearly 30 years ago, the solutions she thinks women have today, the challenges President Trump presents, the role she thinks race plays in sexism, and more.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Fast Company: In your Op-Ed for the New York Times you said that you think the solution to gender inequity in the tech industry is for women to pursue class action suits. Can you explain why you think that will be effective and some of the limitations to the approach?
Anita Hill: Class actions are one of the best options to pursue systemic change. When you read the statistics, and when you punctuate the statistics with the anecdotal information that seems to be coming out regularly about women’s experiences in tech, what you can clearly identify is that the problem is systemic. It’s not just one company or another. It’s not just individual behavior. Is it a problem of culture. It is a problem of the system.
For example, over 50% of women are offered lower salaries than their male counterparts. That doesn’t seem to be just chance or just one or two people who are making offers, this seems to be a system problem. Systemic problems demand broad-based–approach solutions. And class action lawsuits really are broad-based. They can cover a number of women, even thousands of women depending on the size of the workforce. And they can cover a variety of issues, from culture and climate to equal pay to promotions failures or failure of opportunity.
FC: In a lot in these cases when women bring suit against the company, the burden of proof is on them, and they often have their characters scrutinized, as you obviously did during your testimony. What do you think about the fear that women have about being retaliated against or having their reputations damaged?
AH: I absolutely understand that women are fearful of getting involved in lawsuits. We saw some of that in Ellen Pao’s case in Silicon Valley. You see it happening when women speak out, whether it’s a lawsuit or just complaining about their experiences. Susan Fowler spoke up about her experiences and the backlash was real and swift. The industry is quite small in many ways, in terms of the ability of people to know exactly who you are and what you’re doing and whether you’re complaining. So I think that’s a very real fear.
I do think though that group action, while it doesn’t insulate you from that kind of behavior, it does give women a sense that the behavior is not personal. It’s not limited to them. The problems are really bigger. They shouldn’t really personalize even the attacks, because they are so typical now. We need to understand that this is part of the playbook of responding to the problem that people don’t want to confront.
I think that there is strength in numbers in two ways: One, to understand that other women are suffering the same problem gives you a sense of solidarity. I know from hearing from women this is comforting–knowing that there are others out there who are experiencing the same thing, and being able to talk about it with them.
The other strength in numbers is truly unfortunate as a reflection of our society, it’s that in order to be convincing very often we need numbers. One person can be much more easily dismissed than a group of people who talk about the same experience and the same problems. [A woman’s] credibility will be questioned no matter what. But it’s really hard to completely deny that there is an issue when multiple individuals come forward and talk about the same kinds of problems.
FC: I’m glad that you brought up Ellen Pao’s case. I spoke to her recently for her upcoming book, where she details her discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins [Editor’s note: look for that interview in the October issue of Fast Company], which she famously lost. She told me that before she sued she spoke to several women who had filed similar discrimination cases–women who had lost, won, and settled–and all of them told her not to do it. Similarly, Pao said she’d tell women in her position now not to sue, even though she doesn’t regret doing it. I know you said that you don’t regret bringing your sexual harassment charges forward even though you endured so much criticism. Would you advise a woman in a similar situation now to do the same thing that you did?
AH: I am much more cautious. I would never say to someone not to come forward. But right now what I’m working on is talking to women to find what would get [them] to come forward, because women are frustrated with the system. They’re frustrated not only for themselves but they’re frustrated that we’re going to be bringing a new generation of women and people of color into systems that are hostile to them in many ways.
Individual lawsuits are tough. I think what we ought to be doing is providing options. How can you come forward? What do you need? What kind of support would you need? What kind of system would you need? And it seems to me that unfortunately [in] many of the suits–win or lose–many of the individuals who brought them felt very isolated and marginalized. They did not have the support that they needed to weather a lot of the criticism that they were getting. I think that is something that we need to respond to.
What I heard from women is just knowing that they had support was helpful for them getting through, both women who’ve prevailed and women who have not prevailed. Not all of them thought that the effort was worth it. But even some of those who haven’t prevailed said that it is worth it for them to be heard.
FC: This year we’ve seen a blog post bring down the executive board at Uber. What do you think about women going to the court of public opinion to make change happen rather than going through the legal system?
AH: I think the court of public opinion is a wonderful forum in many ways. But it’s not without its detractors and trolls.
In my situation in 1991, much of what happened with my testimony happened after the hearing, in terms of public opinion. Immediately after the hearing 70% of the people polled believed that I had lied–that sexual harassment didn’t exist in the way that I described it. I think that people didn’t even really understand what sexual harassment was.
But after the smoke cleared what happened was that the press shifted from a Washington, D.C.–press corps to general press. There were two pieces that were really important to moving the public to better understanding of the problem: One came out of the San Diego newspaper, and the other came from People magazine. They ran a cover story of women from different walks of life who talked about sexual harassment, including one surgeon who talked about being groped by a male colleague during surgery that she has helping to perform. I think that started engaging the public in this conversation.
[The court of public opinion] is an important tool, but I don’t think it’s the only tool. We still need lawsuits and laws that address these problems in ways that have lasting impact. That actually compels companies to act.
The tech industry can be a model because they are so high profile they are filled with individuals who say they have a commitment to inclusion and diversity. [Those people] probably need to be pushed to implement those values and policies.
FC: Do you think that much has changed since 1991? Are you surprised that this is still such a big issue 26 years later?
AH: Harassment is an issue, pay equity is an issue, [who gets] promoted–and in the tech world in particular [there are issues] around who does the creative work and who gets credit for the work, who is in leadership positions, and issues of who is being served by the innovation.
I would never say that nothing [has] happened since 1991. I have the benefit of hearing from people who have told me that their workplaces have changed after the hearing, after the public discussion, after some work and then, frankly, some lawsuits. So things have changed, but clearly not enough.
I hope we would be farther and I think we should be. But we are talking about problems that have existed for centuries. And the idea that we can just change them, even in 26 years, is just folly. It just doesn’t happen. We can make progress and there has been progress, but we can’t just simply say, “Well I thought it would be over,” and just quit.
FC: Do you think that having a president who constantly objectifies women and openly admits to sexually assaulting women sends a message of acceptance? Do you feel like we’re moving backward?
AH: I think the message sent by the president currently is to validate erroneous information, and amplify it and give other people license to present it as fact instead, of a reflection of the values of the law and of the country. Specifically if you look at the policies and the direction that the administration seems to be going–[for example] the Justice Department has removed its support for transgender [and LGBQ] individuals, [and] the president has abandoned the previous administration’s approach to removing the roadblock of mandated arbitration in discrimination suits.
Those are things that are deeply concerning, even beyond the messaging. We shouldn’t just be listening to the messaging. We need to be very cognizant of the policy changes that are going on and how that will ultimately set us back. We are in a moment now where the policies are seemingly moving us backwards. We will be relying on the courts I think to interpret the law to continue the protections that we thought were safe.
FC: The issue of race often doesn’t come up enough in discussions of the pay gap, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment. How do you think that issues of sexism are different for women of color?
AH: There’s a study of women of color astronomers, [which] found women of color experience more sexual harassment [than white women,] and women of color experience more racial harassment than men of color. We have a lot to truly explore [regarding] what the combination of racial and gender bias does for opportunities of women.
As the population grows, the population that we have been calling the minority will become the majority population . . . We have looked at so many aspects of equality as either a binary or even [a] one-dimensional issue. What we need to come to terms with and try to figure out is a sort of a multidimensional 3D [approach]. It’s not simple; it involves a whole host of different factors including age, disability, sexuality, gender, and race of course is a component.
We’ve come a long way just to get to be able to make that statement and for people to understand it. But I think that also frightens people who think, “Oh, well, we can’t deal with all of those things.” But in fact we will have to if we want equality to be real in people’s lives–if we want it to be real in our society.