Harassment proof eased after EEOC action in '88

October 15, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON — 1/8 TC WASHINGTON -- Why didn't Anita Hill file a formal complaint of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas?

One answer may be that in the early 1980s, it was impossible for a woman to prove a sexual harassment charge on her word alone.

Not until 1988 did the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issue guidelines saying that a woman could prove that she had been sexually harassed "based solely on the credibility of the victim's allegation."

During her testimony, Ms. Hill was asked repeatedly why she didn't protest if her boss had sexually harassed her. She said she feared the effect such a complaint might have on her career, but she did not cite the legal obstacle she would have faced.

Women began filing sexual harassment lawsuits in the late 1970s. In 1980, the EEOC declared sexual harassment to be a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But in a 1982 case brought by a woman who charged that her boss had fondled her, the EEOC ruled that a woman's word alone couldn't establish sexual harassment without corroborating witnesses.

Then in a landmark case in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time gave its definition of sexual harassment. The court said that sexual conduct and lewd statements violated a woman's civil rights if the conduct became a condition of getting or keeping a job or created a hostile work environment.

In 1988, the EEOC disavowed its 1982 ruling and said that a woman's allegation alone, if credible, could result in a finding of sexual harassment against her employer.

Even so, some specialists in the field say that the climate is not much more encouraging to women today than it was in 1981, when, Ms. Hill has alleged, the incidents with Mr. Thomas first occurred. Only 5,557 women complained to the EEOC about harassment last year, or about 5 percent of the women who believe they have been harassed, specialists in the issue estimate.

"A woman today would probably make the same decision that Anita Hill made 10 years ago," said Barbara Otto of the group 9-to-5.

"Victims of sex harassment, if they file a complaint, are ostracized by co-workers, or they lose their jobs."

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