Anita Hill opens up about Me Too, her testimony, Kavanaugh and the 'resistance'

TORONTO — Stories of women who have been sexually harassed, assaulted or mistreated have dominated the headlines and social media for more than a year as the message of Me Too has spread across nearly every industry around the world.

But now one of the movement's most prominent icons says society needs to learn to recognize and address situations that could lead to sexual harassment long before they become full-blown lawsuits and crises.

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Anita Hill, the U.S. attorney and academic who accused a Supreme Court Justice nominee of sexual harassment decades ago, spoke with The Canadian Press ahead of a Dec. 3 visit to Toronto to deliver a speech at the Canadian Women's Foundation annual The Exchange breakfast.

"Often managers don't want to address these issues in these workplaces so they send everyone to HR, but I would love for a manager to be trained to identify behaviours that are likely to escalate to more egregious behaviour and to not only identify but know how to respond," Hill said.

"When you don't prevent gender harassment it creates this permissive culture in the workplace and in many cases that permissive culture becomes an incubator for much more serious behaviour."

Hill became a household name in 1991, when she testified against Clarence Thomas, saying he sexually harassed her while was her supervisor at the Department of Justice. She also alleged that he asked her out several times and often discussed sex at the office.

Following Hill's testimony, the Senate confirmed Thomas to the Supreme Court in a 52-48 vote. A CBS and New York Times poll conducted just after the testimony found 54 per cent of respondents thought Hill's accusations were untrue and she faced significant public backlash.

Nonetheless, she galvanized the women's movement, which drew comparisons between her case and the recent accusations levelled by Christine Blasey Ford and two other women against Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which were not enough to prevent him being named to the Supreme Court.

Following her testimony Hill said she saw the number of sexual harassment complaints more than double, legislation pass allowing for recovery and compensation for victims of sexual harassment and an openness around discussing the problem.

"We had a record number of women who were willing to come forward and share their stories and many of them raised a generation of children who understood that sexual harassment was wrong, that it was illegal and that they did not deserve to be treated in that way," Hill said.

"Unfortunately things like the Kavanaugh hearing set us back...but I think we are much smarter now, much more informed and there are much more people working on this than there were 27 years ago and that is why I think we can make progress."

However, Hill stressed that progress cannot come without paying particular attention to those who face added barriers because of their ethnicity, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation.

Hill said research has shown that minority women who come forward with claims of sexual harassment are sometimes treated differently from their majority peers.

"Sexual harassment can impact any woman, but it will not necessarily impact all women in the same way," Hill said.

Several women have reached out to her over the years seeking advice on how they can come forward with sexual misconduct claims. The volume and intricacies of their situations and her busy schedule mean she refers them to organizations and people that can likely help, but Hill said there is never a simple answer as to what these women should do.

She said it is hard to know why some industries have been rife with sexual misconduct accusations against public figures, while others, including Canada's Bay Street, have been much more quiet since the Me Too movement began with a wave of allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein last October.

Hill argues that coming forward is difficult for anybody, especially because research she's read suggests 60 per cent of those who make such claims will face retaliation.

Many also face difficulties navigating non-disclosure agreements — a silencing tool that she noticed was rampant after her testimony. Violating such an agreement can trigger legal implications and make it difficult to find another job.

"There is still a lot of resistance. I don't think there is smooth sailing for anyone," Hill said. "My situation is different because it was so public and was politically driven, but I don't know that anyone who comes forward and makes a charge of sexual misconduct, harassment, can have an easy time in a system that often assumes that they are not being truthful."

That system is also grappling with stories of unintended consequences stemming from Me Too, including men who are refusing to take meetings with or mentor women for fear of being wrongly accused of misbehaviour.

Hill hasn't heard of any instances of this kind of backlash, but said it "worries" her because it could "become an excuse for not doing the things they weren't doing anyway."

She feels it also shows why men need to be part of the Me Too conversation.

"We need men to be on board with us, not only because in many cases they are the decision-markers, but also because sexual violence affects them," she said.

As Me Too moves forward, she said it's important that its proponents do not underestimate "the resistance," which she saw in full force following her own testimony.

"As much progress as we have made, there were efforts to reduce that progress or nullify that progress," she said.

"I am hoping at this point, we can move and work in our spaces, whether it be the private or public sector, to become problem solvers, to see sexual harassment not as something you want to address as a risk or a lawsuit, but because it occurs in your workforce and is causing institutional damage."

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