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Share strategies to fight sexual harassment, panelists say

STANFORD -- Sexual harassment is almost always about power and control, sometimes about race and rarely about sex. And women should know all the strategies and arenas for fighting back: legal, public and environmental.

Those were the messages of Stanford University panelists Feb. 13 as they addressed "Sexual Harassment and Higher Education."

Speaking were Dr. Frances Conley, a neurosurgeon at the medical school; Prof. Terry Karl, director of the center for Latin American Studies; Maria Ontiveros, a doctoral candidate in law; and Prof. Deborah Rhode of the School of Law.

Ontiveros described the complex connections between sexism and racism.

"For women of color," she said, "sexual harassment is rarely, if ever, about sex or sexism alone. It's also about race.

"Sexism and racism often blend together in the minds of the harassers, and women of color are often thought of as having a certain type of sexuality that is distinct from white women's: African American women are often thought to be naturally lascivious; Latinas are talked about as being 'hot blooded'; Asian American women are portrayed as prostitutes. This means that if a woman of color has been harassed, she probably wanted it."

Women of color often are thought of as weak and passive, she said, and since sexual harassment is about power, women of color are seen as the easiest victim, she said.

"If the harasser is a man of color, I am willing to bet that the victim is a woman of color, because men of color do not feel the same sort of power over white women," Ontiveros said.

A women of color also is less likely to complain about sexual harassment, she said. Her own community is more likely to blame her for what happened, Ontiveros said, and if the harasser is a man of color, "she will be regarded as a traitor" for implicating him.

In addition, she said, women of color, especially recent immigrants are unsure about their legal rights or status. "If you're unclear about your right to stay in the country, you have a very powerful disincentive to report," she said.

And the legal system does not accord women of color credibility, Ontiveros said. Many more rape complaints by black women have been dismissed through the years then similar complaints by white women, she said.

Rhode said that academia provides a particularly vulnerable environment for sexual harassment. The typical social hierarchy on campus takes the form of a pyramid, with many more women on the bottom and many more men at the top. And it also is where many people meet their potential mates, making it "harder to separate out what's romance, what's power, what's legitimate and what's not," she said.

"This is why I think there ought to be flat bans on professors or teaching assistants seeing a student, while that person is a student," Rhode said.

"I realize this is difficult to pull off in some departments, and more problematic with graduate students, and I am willing to acknowledge that it will probably be violated sometimes. But presumably, if you have that rule, the circumstances where it will be violated are those in which it was genuinely wanted, and there was no doubt about it."

The other side of the coin is that "if you make people too nervous about it, they are not going to be willing to serve as mentors, they will be more reluctant to go out to lunch with a female student or do anything that would put them in some risk of an accusation," she said.

Rhode described different types of public denial of sexual harassment.

The most obvious is that it just doesn't happen. Many people, "including, for example, my mother," subscribe to this approach, Rhode said. Or, if they are willing to acknowledge the problem in general, some people deny it happened in any particular case.

"Anita Hill's case is a textbook illustration," Rhode said, refering to the Oklahoma law professor who accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of harassment. "She had a spotless past, no motive to lie, and corroboration by the kind of character witnesses most lawyers would die for, and yet the majority of Americans reportedly believed him over her."

Another form of denial is that sexual harassment did happen, but the woman is somehow responsible. Taking the next step, if people are willing to accept that harassment occurred, and that the man is responsible, Rhode said, they still may dispute the woman's claim of injury.

"Much of the difficulty here lies in the gap between men's assumptions and women's experiences," she said. "As one executive noted: 'I have never been harassed, but I welcome the opportunity.' Well, I have been harassed, and I welcome letting him share that opportunity, complete with its massive stress, humiliation, guilt and fear of serious career consequences."

And some people acknowledge the harassment and even the resulting injury, but deny they matter.

"As many members of the Hill-Thomas hearings put it: 'What's the big deal?'" Rhode said.

Between those hearings and the trial that led to the rape conviction of boxer Mike Tyson, the nation has participated in "an extraordinary example of collective consciousness-raising on sexual harassment," Rhode said.

"The good news is that many men in positions of power recognize that they need to listen to injured women," she said. "The bad news is that many of these men, and a depressingly large number of other women, still don't hear what is being said.

"Where do we go from here? First of all, we need to alter sex harassment procedures. When men harass, it should not be women's conduct, character and career that are on trial and at risk. The issue should be whether the environment is indeed abusive, measured from a realistic, reasonable woman's perspective.

"Courts need to be more firm about excluding prejudicial evidence and sexual promiscuity that victimize victims and deter them from coming forward.

"And we need measures that provide real sanctions. It's not enough, as we recently saw at Stanford Medical School, for administrators to declare that they absolutely will not tolerate sexual harassment. They have been not tolerating it for decades."

Conley made national headlines last year when she tendered, and later withdrew, her resignation from the medical school, citing "pervasive sexism." She told the audience about "a more subtle form of abuse," directed at "limiting women's careers to a controllable level."

"The idea is to remind the harassed person, as well everybody else in the work place, that that person is different, on the basis of gender and/or race, and that because of that difference they will never have full membership in the club," she said.

"For example, I have publicly objected to being called 'honey' by the acting chairman of my department. Most people thought that my complaint about this was completely trivial, but before rushing to judgment, let's look at the impact of him calling me 'honey' in the context of my working environment.

"As a surgeon, I have to control a team of professionals in the operating room. Now he walks into my operating room, with the operation well on its way, and asks: 'How's it going, honey?' Suddenly, I'm not the surgeon in charge, I'm one of his honeys, and it then takes me a few minutes to re-establish the necessary control.

"I believe that changes will only occur by evolution, not by revolution, and it certainly will be helped by getting more women into decision-making positions and by much more attention to choice of executive leadership."

Karl also spoke from personal experience. She was one of the first women in academia to file, and win, a grievance for sexual harassment against a senior faculty member - the director of her program at Harvard University who became chairman of her department.

Karl entered the government department at Harvard in 1981 as an assistant professor. On Thursday, she described how the man's harassment started with small remarks and escalated to worsening instances of verbal and physical violence.

"I was not aware there was a term for what was happening to me," she said. "I just felt I was living a nightmare."

In 1983, Karl filed a case against her harasser, but only after writing him a detailed letter. His written reply constituted the main evidence on her side.

She later filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against Harvard (the chairman of the EEOC at that time was Clarence Thomas), and was involved in writing the sex-discrimination policy at Harvard.

Karl stressed the importance of defining the goal and choosing the strategy for the fight.

"You have several recourses when you are being harassed," she said. "You can file a complaint or not file a complaint. You can choose publicity or not choose publicity. The important thing is always to keep very clear what you want in the end, so that you know what victory means.

"My definition of winning was, number one, stop the harassment; number two, don't let it stop your career."

Karl had some practical advice on obtaining victory:

  • Keep an absolutely detailed record of what has happened, with names, dates and times, and go tell somebody the minute it happens. Build the best corroborating case for yourself.
  • Don't keep it to yourself. Tell your best friends, people you trust, your therapist. Don't stay isolated.
  • Write your harasser a detailed letter, and demand that the harassment stop.
  • If you are being harassed, there's a good chance the same person is harassing someone else, too. Keep your eyes open to learn who. There's much more credibility in more then one complaint.



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