John Oliver talks about sexual harassment in the workplace

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On Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver talks about sexual harassment in the workplace. How much has changed and how much work remains ahead?

The latest episode of Last Week Tonight deals with a heavy topic — workplace sexual harassment. “Who better to talk about it than me, a man?” joked host John Oliver.

“We’ve been dealing with workplace harassment for decades,” says Oliver. What about this lesson that isn’t getting learned? It’s been in the headlines again this week with Les Moonves and CBS, not to mention Harvey Weinstein.

Men are getting nervous about the specter of sexual harassment in their own lives. “I’m so scared to look at a woman,” said a man on Dr. Drew’s show. Others complain about “innocent people being hurt” — and that quote came from Tucker Carlson, so you know it’s got to be genuine and sincere, right?

“It does seem like we’re on the verge of a national reckoning about sexual harassment,” said Oliver. Are we, really, though? Let’s head back to the 1990s, where large companies paid sexual harassment settlements, there was at least one “Year of the Woman,” and Liza Minnelli sang a peppy show tune about women and Hillary Clinton leading the way.

Ah, how things have changed.

Anita Hill

The wave of sexual harassment reckoning in the 1990s all arguably started with one woman: Anita Hill. She testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the harassment she had received from then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas. Hill’s treatment during the whole process was, frankly, shameful, not least because Thomas was still confirmed to the Supreme Court.

Both back then and today, the “rules” around sexual harassment — what constitutes it, how to proceed if you think you or someone else has been harassed — are up in the air. “It’s something that continues to confuse people,” said Oliver, despite the seemingly endless workplace training videos about trying to extend basic respect to women in the workplace.

Legally speaking, sexual harassment is a form of discrimination, on par with discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, and religion. Sexual harassment becomes illegal when it makes the workplace nigh unbearable for the harassed or when it enters into a “quid pro quo” situation, where the person being harassed has to endure it all for fear of losing their job. In short, according to Oliver, “It’s going out of your way to make someone else’s workday a psychosexual nightmare.”

Victims

Yet, much of the critique is directed at the people doing the accusing — i.e., women — and offering empathy for the men who are being destroyed by being faced with potential consequences for their sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, there is still great debate as to how someone should go about reporting harassment and seeking justice. “The court of public opinion is far from an ideal place to deal with individual claims,” said Oliver, but we need to question why people so often feel the need to come forward publicly with their claims. That’s because, so often, private processes for dealing with harassment are deeply inadequate.

First, you have to technically go through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to file a discrimination suit. If only the EEOC weren’t known for holding difficult to win cases. For small businesses, there is often no federal protection for harassment at all.

What about Human Resources departments? That might work if only the HR department weren’t supposed to protect the company more often than employees.

Look at Fox News, where Bill O’Reilly was accused of multiple counts of sustained sexual harassment. Fox News initially said that no one ever called the 21st Century Fox hotline about O’Reilly. Therefore, it’s fine, right?

That statement didn’t acknowledge the “huge power disparity” between O’Reilly and the women concerned, however. That was pointed out in a Today show interview conducted by, uh, Matt Lauer.

Progress-ish

We’ve made some progress, but footage from the 1990s Anita Hill hearings show that we haven’t done enough. What to do? Awareness of the problem, for one, followed by companies developing useful ways to deal with harassment internally. Employees are also responsible for helping to change their workplace environments. And, yes, that means a lot of people have to stop whining about being afraid to work with women for fear of being accused.

“Change is in the air, though… and you know what? I think we will. I’d love to say we believe that,” said Oliver. Except Oliver’s script was pulled from that cheesy 1980s sexual harassment training video we’ve seen throughout the segment. Oof.

“Time was supposed to be up in 1981 and 1991 and time is supposed to be up again,” said Oliver.

He then segued into an interview with none other than Professor Anita Hill, who took time from her teaching at Brandeis University to sit down with him.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of change,” she said, both in public attitude and information about sexual harassment. But does awareness of a problem make it better? Hill said that, at the time of her hearings, there was no consensus. “So far, much of the approach we’ve had is to put all of the burdens on women.” She said that it’s better to fix everything else, rather than worrying over women and girls as victims.

Do men have a role in fixing sexual harassment? asked Oliver. “We need you to step up,” said Hill. “There are no innocent bystanders.”

What about men who are worried about the mere fact of being around a woman in the workplace? Should they be scared? “Not if they’re not harassers,” said Hill. “If you’re a harasser, you should be terrified.” False claims are so rare that they shouldn’t really be the center of the worries, especially when we’re still trying to figure out larger questions.

Fixes

As for the eight-hour hearing before the Senate Committee, Hill said that she was often confused. “They really don’t know what they’re doing,” she said, especially when the committee asked her what procedure she wanted.

“I will also add that, in terms of my display of contempt: I’ve lived through a lot of challenges, and having questions thrown at me to challenge my competency as a woman, as a woman of color. And so much of what I heard that day was familiar in tone. The questions were different, but the tone was something that was all too familiar.”

“Let’s talk about fixes,” said Oliver. What should we do?

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First, companies should publicize their harassment policies, said Hill. That means making processes for filing complaints transparent and publicly available. We should also emphasize bystander training. What do you do when you witness sexual harassment? How do you address a power dynamic that is still rampant in workplaces when it comes to reporting?

Will this ever get fixed? Change seems to be “glacially slow,” in Hill’s words. But, “if we do nothing, the change is not going to come.”