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What HBO's Confirmation Says About Sexual Harassment Today

Apr 20, 2016 / Media Coverage / Fortune — Amy Cao

It’s taken 25 years to make noticeable progress.

Today, sexual harassment is an outdated phrase, as offensive language and actions against women in the workplace are both explicit and subtle. Take for instance a friend of mine who told me about a VC who suggested getting a meal to discuss her new startup. Not long before they were scheduled to meet, he texted her to ask, “What are you wearing?”

That question would certainly offend most women today, which is unlike how many women would have responded years ago. Twenty-five years have passed since Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas in the lead up to his confirmation as Supreme Court Justice. And HBO’s recent release, Confirmation, has reopened old wounds over the nomination hearings. While companies have made strides to abide by sexual harassment laws since the 1991 proceedings, the workplace is still rife with gender biases. Furthermore, the phrase “sexual harassment” has run its course, says Dr. Catherine Tesluk MD, a psychiatrist based in New Haven, Connecticut.  

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Sexual harassment still exists in the workplace; it’s just harder to get people to pay attention.

Recognizing that sexual harassment comes in many forms has helped to define specific issues, each with their own set of challenges and solutions, from unconscious biases to discrimination around family planning. To illustrate, the legendary journalist Gay Talese was taken to task earlier this month for saying that there are no female writers he admires to an audience of 600 people at Boston University. And last year’s high-profile (and expensive) loss for Ellen Pao to her former employer, venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, unfortunately ensures that fewer and fewer cases of workplace sexual harassment will ever get the media attention they deserve as companies become more savvy in their handling of allegations.

But it’s not all bad news.      *         *         *    [A] growing number of companies are changing the gender dynamic by championing family-friendly new policies, such as paid parental leave for all new parents – not just mothers and biological parents. State governments are joining the bandwagon, too. In January, California established the Fair Pay Act, which requires employers to be able to prove that they pay both genders equally for “substantially similar” work. And earlier this month, New York’s legislature finalized a budget deal that included a bill mandating paid-family leave for employees starting in 2018.

While the new policies probably won’t eliminate all workplace inequalities, preconceptions of women as primary caregivers stands to change. And, with it, the culture of workplace harassment and perception of women will hopefully change as well.

Many of us in the workforce today were elementary or high school students during the Anita Hill case (I was in the first grade.) While we’re lucky that we’ve never known a time when employers were not held accountable for workplace harassment, it’s taken a quarter of a century – and a heated presidential race – to expedite this next phase of change. As we work to define the struggles in the modern workplace for all genders, one way to contribute is to simply join the conversation. Use the new vocabulary and ask for it: pay parity, parental leave. It’s just semantics until it isn’t.

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