Anita Hill and Coach Joan (Joan Tabb) meeting, 2017
I had one of the most amazing experiences last week. I had the opportunity to personally meet with Anita Hill for a private talk of about twenty minutes when she was in San Francisco for a speaking engagement. Anita Hill, a lawyer and professor, was the first to publicly discuss sexual harassment in a Congressional federal hearing. It was 1991 and she testified that her former boss, Clarence Thomas, who was being considered to be a Justice of the Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her and should be disqualified for the appointment.
Anita Hill has been a hero of mine for decades. I value her immense bravery for opting to speak up and speak out. She spoke out about sexual harassment on the job when it was not yet widely discussed. It was happening, and it had been happening forever, and it had happened to me at around the same time, but it was not a part of our national discourse. It was an unspoken dark place that Anita Hill insisted the Judiciary Committee and the entire country visit via her testimony.
In fact, when she gave her testimony about Clarence Thomas, Hill was treated with dismissiveness. When she testified on television to Thomas’s disgusting and inappropriate behaviors, I believe many women and some men knew she was telling the truth. Nevertheless, her testimony did not receive the consideration it should have.
Clarence Thomas was not held accountable, and to this day he sits on the highest court of the land in a lifetime tenured position as Supreme Court judge, rendering decisions that impact millions of Americans.
I am writing this career advice article today to remind us all that we must speak up for respect and fair treatment, and our voices must be heard.
Meeting with Anita Hill was especially powerful as I had the opportunity to share with her my personal story. I experienced sexual harassment at work around the same time she had. I was in my mid 20s and worked for a large advertising agency in NYC. My manager was a serious alcoholic but in the two years I worked for him I learned to do his job. When he passed away I assumed I would be promoted to his position. My assumption was wrong. A middle aged man was brought in replace him. I was to be his assistant. It was awful. Not only was I not given the position I had earned, but the new manager harassed me and I left.
Unfortunately, I did not speak up. I did not speak truth to power. I was scared. I was ashamed. I quit my job and put myself in the precarious position of unemployment, leaving behind two years of excellent work, cut short by harassment.
We must educate and enlighten ourselves and our work communities to encourage respect and opportunity for all. We must judge people based their words, actions and behaviors. Those are the things that matter, that we should be judged on. We should never be accepting of behavior that demeans anyone based on gender, race or sexual orientation. And we should speak out if we see that kind of behavior.
We need to be trained and sensitized to the conscious and unconscious biases we bring to the work place and the inequities they cause.
If you are in organizations that provide sexual harassment training, diversity programs or opportunities to dialogue among your co-workers of different backgrounds, please take these opportunities seriously. Get involved, and participate. If your organizations don’t address these issues, request that they do.
And, most importantly, speak up if you see something wrong. Speak up if you are being harassed or if you see someone being harassed. If you see inequitable treatment speak up. Become an ally or an advocate. Speak truth to power.
I internalized, learned and grew from Anita Hill’s bravery. As the years went by, I became an empowered and outspoken advocate for myself, my colleagues, my employees and my clients.
It was so gratifying to have had the opportunity to thank my role model, live and in person. Anita Hill has gone on beyond her role as a brilliant lawyer and law professor to become an advocate for change in social policy on many levels. I encourage you to get to know Anita Hill. By learning her story I hope that you, too, will become empowered to stand up to for truth, respect and equal opportunity in the workplace.
May you have the courage to speak truth to power,
Re-Imagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home , Anita Hill
Anita Hill: Speaking Truth to Power , Anita Hill