Sexual harassment is big news these days, but this isn't the first time the issue has captured national headlines. In the 1990s and early 2000s there were a number of high profile lawsuits that put the issue front and center and changed public perception. This time around, the focus is on legislation, not lawsuits, but it's worth taking a look back at the history of the issue, to see how far we've come.
What is sexual harassment?
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment includes:
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature ... when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment.
Five cases that put sexual harassment on the map
1. Anita Hill/Justice Clarence Thomas
The first sexual harassment decision was actually handed down in 1976. But it wasn't until the 1991 confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas that the concept entered the national consciousness.
The country watched live coverage of Anita Hill (Thomas's former colleague and a law professor) accusing Thomas of using inappropriate language and sexually harassing female colleagues when they worked together.
Since these allegations were never part of a lawsuit, Hill's claims were not proved or disproved. And Thomas denied all allegations. Thomas's nomination was barely approved by the Senate in a vote of 52-48.
It should be noted that in the year after the Thomas hearings, the number of sexual harassment cases filed rose by 50%.
2. Paula Jones/President Bill Clinton
Staying in the realm of the government, President Clinton himself came under fire for alleged sexual harassment. Paula Jones was a state employee when Clinton was Governor of Arkansas. In 1991, she claimed that Clinton exposed himself and asked her for oral sex in a hotel room. Clinton denied all allegations.
After several rounds of filing, Jones's lawsuit was dismissed for failing to state a claim. During the appeals process, a settlement was reached. Jones dropped her suit against Clinton in exchange for $850,000. However, she never received an admission of guilt or an apology.
Jones's allegations paved the way for investigating the President's sex life. The Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment of President Clinton were big follow-ups to the Paula Jones case.
3. The Tailhook Convention
Still within the government and also in 1991, the Tailhook scandal involved sexual allegations against the armed forces. This case put the spotlight on what some women had been experiencing for years. Former Navy lieutenant Paula Coughlin was one of more than 80 women who alleged they were sexually assaulted. The assailants were drunken Naval and Marine officers attending a conference at Vegas' Hilton Hotel. Coughlin later left the Navy. She said the organization failed to investigate her allegations and then retaliated against her for being a "whistleblower."
Coughlin ended up suing the hotel for failing to provide adequate security. She was awarded $1.7 million in compensatory and $5 million in punitive damages.
4. Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing
In 1998, Mitsubishi agreed to pay $34 million to female workers at the Normal, Illinois plant where the work environment was anything but normal. In fact, the company was charged with allowing a hostile setting for women since at least 1990. In addition to the $34 million, Mitsubishi paid out several more million in individual suits.
The women were routinely fondled, verbally abused, and subjected to obscene jokes, behavior, and graffiti. One male worker even fired an air gun between a female's legs. The abusive work environment caused many women to quit. Others were simply denied promotions when they refused to grant sexual favors.
The silver lining in this cloud is that Mitsubishi has impressively cleaned up its tarnished reputation. The company immediately hired Lynn Martin, former Secretary of Labor. Martin overhauled the anti-sexual harassment and complaint system, which now boasts a zero-tolerance policy.
5. University of Colorado Football program
Two women charged the University of Colorado's football program with sexual harassment. The women claimed they were sexually assaulted in 2001 at an off-campus party by Colorado football players and recruits. They allege the university is liable for fostering the atmosphere that led to the alleged assaults, claiming the school tries to draw in the best high school football prospects with sex-and-alcohol-parties.
The women's suit was filed under Title IX, which promotes gender equality in education. Vastly different from the sexual harassment claims described above, violations of Title IX require showing that the school had actual notice of sexual harassment and then acted with deliberate indifference. The case was recently thrown out in a U.S. District Court, but the women have appealed.
After the allegations, the University of Colorado Board of Regents backed an independent investigation. The results found that drugs, alcohol, and sex have been used to draw in recruits but not with the sanctioning of university officials. The school now has some of the strictest recruitment policies in the country.
Cracking down on sexual harassment
In part because of these lawsuits, America experienced a cultural shift that continues to impact us today. As courts, employers, and schools continue to take sexual harassment more seriously we are changing the way we function in the workplace. New legislation for workplace sexual harassment training helps ensure employees know the rules up front, and a broader societal understanding is making the workplace a safer and more inclusive place for everyone.