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10/25/91

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Sexual harassment: a victim advises others on how to win

STANFORD -- Terry Karl, a Stanford political science professor who battled against sexual harassment on her first teaching job without losing her career, gave practical advice Oct. 23 to other victims on how to do it.

Invited by campus religious organizations to speak on "anger" as part of a campus noontime lecture series on "the seven deadly sins," Karl described how she focused her anger on "political action" rather than revenge against the Harvard professor who harassed her from 1981 to 1983.

She advised other victims to "discipline your anger so it doesn't become depression and destroy you. . . . Then, you have to be very clear on what you want. Define victory for yourself.

"I had a wish list a mile long, but eventually I settled on two things that were most important to me. I wanted to change Harvard's attitude [toward sexual harassment] and still be a professor at the end of it."

Punishing the individual harasser was not as important to her, Karl said, as getting Harvard to adopt grievance procedures for victims of sexual harassment and an ombudsperson's office to handle complaints. The university also agreed to distribute a definition of sexual harassment to all employees and students for five years as part of the 1985 settlement.

Harvard gave her harasser a year's leave with pay, she said. "I refer to it as the 'Guggenheim for sexual harassment'," Karl said.

Karl's harassment case was reported in the press at the time but her identity was not revealed until she decided to tell her own story in the Oct. 12 issue of the Boston Globe.

Karl said she came forward publicly "because I knew exactly what was going to happen to Anita Hill before she testified" to a congressional committee investigating Hill's harassment allegation against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

"She was in the wrong forum, and it wouldn't work," Karl said. "I knew that because of my own experience. I tried first in the wrong forum, too."

The wrong forum, Karl said, is any institutional structure that is predisposed to protect the accused, one that has no formal grievance procedures or advocates for a victim of sexual harassment.

Hill was not likely to prevail presenting her case to male senators in a congressional hearing format that did not follow court rules and procedures that have been set up for adjudicating sexual harassment cases, Karl said. Because of the unlikelihood of eyewitnesses, for instance, the courts do not require plaintiffs to prove their case "beyond a reasonable doubt." The legal standard used is the "preponderance of evidence."

The fact that the Senate is 98 percent male is also important, Karl said, noting that in California, the courts have acknowledged studies that show women view sexual harassment differently than do men. A California appellate court has ruled that adjudicators are to define sexual harassment the way a "reasonable woman" would, rather than the more typical "reasonable person" legal standard.

In Karl's own case, the wrong forum was not Congress but the dean of Harvard faculty. The dean ruled in her favor but concluded that she, rather than the harasser, would have to leave Harvard because the harasser was tenured and Karl was not.

Karl's only recourse then was to file a complaint under civil rights law with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Filing the claim brought the university's legal apparatus into the case as defenders and advocates for the professor she accused.

Even today, she said, many institutions have no procedures or policies to prevent them from automatically siding with the accused rather than the complaining employee.

"Very few institutions will do what Stanford University recently did in the face of noted surgeon Dr. Frances Conley's accusations of sexual harassment at the medical school and carry out its own investigation, then later initiate charges against a professor in another unrelated case," she said.

Karl eventually agreed to a settlement, she said, in part, to save her career.

"In my field, you publish or perish. . . . I could not afford to carry on a legal battle against Harvard for 10 years," she said.

She salvaged her career but left Harvard, Karl said, when she realized "there was no way to legislate inside an all-male government department a position for me" or to make sure it would stop being a "hostile environment."

Karl accepted a tenure-track position at Stanford, was promoted to an associate professor position in 1990 and currently is also director of the Center for Latin American Studies. If she had publicly "blasted Harvard in the press" at the time she was fighting her case, Karl told her audience, she believes her academic career "would have been over."

"It's hard not to blast everybody, but you need to control where and how you express your anger," she advised other victims.

Karl gave these specific pointers to women who are subjected to "abuses of power" in the workplace through sexual harassment:

  • Don't confuse the "gender insensitivity" of some males in settings outside the workplace or intimate relationships within the workplace with sexual harassment, Karl said. Workplace harassment includes "threats and degradation s" linked to a woman's livelihood. Expressions of romantic interest on the job aren't harassment, if a "no" answer is accepted. * Keep a detailed written record of the incidents. (She kept a two-year journal of incidents that she said escalated over time to threats of rape and finally assault.)
  • Tell several "friends, family or your minister" about the incidents when they occur. "Say, 'I'm not ready to file a grievance, but I want you to know this is happening'," she said.
  • If possible, create an "ear witness." Karl had her roommate listen in on harassing calls and take notes.
  • Consider sending a letter to the harasser letting him know you will file a complaint if the harassment does not stop. In Karl's case, the harasser wrote back admitting some behavior, which later helped her prove her case, she said.
  • Seek corroborating evidence. "Look for people who are in the same situation as you," Karl said. "If somebody's harassing you, there's a good chance he's harassing somebody else." Other women in her academic department were eventually added into Karl's case.
  • "Finally," she said, "if you happen to be in an institutional setting that has no sexual harassment grievance procedures or polices and no advocate for you as a victim, go into a forum that does" by filing legal claims based on federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

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