JUST BEFORE a press conference yesterday in which she charged Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas with sexual harassment, law professor Anita Faye Hill said she received a telephone call from a prominent male civil rights leader who described the actions attributed to Thomas as "normal male behavior."
Until very recently, the law would have agreed with that view.
As more and more women have entered the work force, however, often in non-traditional jobs, the courts -- which once dismissed sexual harassment cases -- increasingly have come to see them as significant. Thomas' case may become a test of whether the political system has changed as well.
"We are about to witness a national debate about how seriously we take cases of sexual harassment in 1991," said University of Southern California law professor Susan Estrich.
For the members of the United States Senate, particularly the 98 male senators, the test already is becoming an uncomfortable one. Not only must they consider conflicting statements -- Hill's allegations and Thomas' denials -- they also must weigh a problem that pervades many of the legal cases: Action that may seem perfectly innocent to a man may be devastating to the woman who must handle his advances.
Although job discrimination against women has been illegal since 1965, sexual harassment was generally not accepted as a form of discrimination until the late 1970s. And until a key Supreme Court ruling in 1986, the sort of conduct of which Hill has complained -- lewd comments and other actions that create a "hostile environment" but which do not include direct demands for sex in exchange for a job -- often was not considered against the law.
In part, experts say, the legal system has been slow to confront sexual harassment because of how differently many men -- including male judges and lawyers -- have viewed behavior that women find highly disturbing.
"What happens is a lot of men think of these cases as private actions between equals," says Georgetown University law professor Susan Ross. "Men are not often in the position where they have a female superior at work, a person who can hire or fire them, deny them promotions or give them bonuses and then make sexual come-ons to them. It's difficult for many men to envision how uncomfortable that is, how totally trapped a woman can feel."
Adding impetus for change has been a growing realization of the prevalence of sexual harassment. A survey by the federal agency which oversees civil service hiring found in 1982 that more than 40 percent of women reported that they had been sexually harassed on the job.
[In Dec. 1989, the National Law Journal reported that in a survey of women in large law firms, at least 60 percent of those responding said they experienced unwelcome sexual attention of some kind; 13 reported actual or attempted rape or assault, said Jana Singer, assistant professor of law at University of Maryland at Baltimore whose specialties are women in the law and family law.
[Maybe what it indicates here is that sexual harassment is quite common, a problem for women and particularly for women in legal careers or careers where it has been a traditionally male work environment, Singer said.]
And men and women do, often, simply see things differently.
On average, says management consultant Freada Klein, who has conducted extensive surveys of male and female attitudes about sexual harassment and has testified as an expert witness in harassment cases, men tend to see sexual remarks, jokes and gestures as something dramatically different from sexual assault or violence. Women, in contrast, tend to "see sexual conduct on a continuum" and, as a result, often feel threatened by acts which men see as innocent, she says.
[Maryland's definition of sexual harassment mirrors the federal one: It is "any unwanted sexual advance in the workplace or creating a sexually hostile work environment," said Henry B. Ford, deputy director of the Maryland Human Relations Commission. That includes telling jokes or posting pictures, he said.
[Pamela J. White, a Baltimore attorney who has practiced employment law for 15 years from a management perspective, has handled sexual harassment cases, an "increasing number in recent years."
["Woman are more and more open these days to report (sexual harassment) because of agencies like the EEOC. Education is the key. Women who are victims are afforded the ability to complain. . .that, coupled with the onerous penalties that can be imposed on an employer for failing to investigate a complaint, seem to be turning the tide."]