We've Begun To Draw The Line, But It's Tough To Define Sexual Harassment A landmark Supreme Court case made sexual harassment in the workplace illegal 30 years ago. In For The Record, we look at how much things have changed — or not — for women in the workplace.
NPR logo

We've Begun To Draw The Line, But It's Tough To Define Sexual Harassment

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/465878962/465901895" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
We've Begun To Draw The Line, But It's Tough To Define Sexual Harassment


We've Begun To Draw The Line, But It's Tough To Define Sexual Harassment

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/465878962/465901895" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.


MARTIN: And this is For the Record.


MARTIN: Not that long ago, being a woman in the workplace was different. Cue the "Mad Men" cut.


VINCENT KARTHEISER: (As Pete Campbell) Well, you're in the city now, wouldn't be a sin for us to see your legs. And if you pull your waist in a little bit, you might look like a woman.

ELISABETH MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) Is that all, Mr. Draper?

KARTHEISER: (As Pete Campbell) Hey, I'm not done here. I'm working my way up.

MARTIN: That was just the way things were back then. And it wasn't until 1986 that the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged there is something called sexual harassment, and it's a violation of federal civil rights law. That doesn't mean it doesn't happen anymore. And the advent of social media has created a new avenue for women to share their stories and, in some cases, their allegations. Just last week, a prominent professor at the University of Chicago resigned for what the school called, quote, "severe and pervasive sexual misconduct." For the Record today, crossing the line.


MARTIN: We're going to introduce you to three people with their own view and personal experience with sexual harassment. First, law professor Minna Kotkin. She graduated from law school in 1975. She was one of only 20 women in her law school class. And she told me the concept of sexual harassment didn't even exist back then.

MINNA KOTKIN: You know, it was sort of unpleasant, but, you know, it came with the territory.

MARTIN: I asked her to define sexual harassment. And Minna Kotkin says it's behavior that prevents you from doing your job. And it can range from sexual assault to uncomfortable remarks. Legally, she says, it has to be severe and pervasive. And she says small remarks can add up.

KOTKIN: What we now call micro-aggression, you know, someone constantly commenting on how you look or what you're wearing or who your boyfriend is or where you're going on a date, you know.

MARTIN: Those things are not illegal. And those things don't meet the definition of sexual harassment.

KOTKIN: No, they don't. But taken together and when they escalate beyond that, you know, the partner who wants to give you a back rub, you know, who pats you on the legs and says, nice job - where - where does it - where is the line?


MARTIN: Patricia Valoy knows where the line is, and she can't count how many times her male peers and supervisors have crossed it.

PATRICIA VALOY: I've been a female for long enough to know when people are just looking at me to say, hey, how are you and when they're looking at me wondering, like, what's underneath my clothing.

MARTIN: Patricia is a civil engineer. She came upon the field when she was Googling around, looking for jobs for girls who like math.

VALOY: It didn't occur to me until I had teachers and family members and friends saying, like, isn't that for men? Isn't that kind of a masculine discipline? And I said, really, it is?

MARTIN: She's a boss now. But as a young intern on construction sites, she stood out.

VALOY: It definitely started with just comments about my body.

MARTIN: Patricia laughed it off, didn't respond.

VALOY: I didn't want retribution. And sometimes, I didn't really understand what was happening in a way that I thought, like, well, I'm the only woman here. And I'm walking around. And these guys are all working. And what - you know, what do I expect? This is part of the job.

MARTIN: She kept advancing, getting promotions and moving forward in her industry. And the comments followed her.

VALOY: Wow, you're so beautiful. I love seeing you pass by my desk. Say, in a meeting I've had, you know, coworkers just talk about oh, you know, the way I look. Oh, you look so - you look so nice today. Oh, I'm going to take you out to dinner sometime. And, you know, everybody around the room is, like, in on the joke. Like, it's so funny, oh, wow.


MARTIN: Lawyer Minna Kotkin says the courts tend to dismiss some of this behavior as just part of the culture in certain workplaces, especially male-dominated industries, like the one Patricia works in.

KOTKIN: The courts generally have a sense that women working particularly in non-traditional jobs have to accept a fair amount of male banter or locker-room-type talk in those industries, that those industries are not going to change.

MARTIN: But it happens everywhere. Yes, on construction sites but also in financial firms, law offices, even politically liberal organizations that like to think of themselves as immune to this kind of behavior.

SABRINA HERSI ISSA: When I started out, it was around the financial collapse - the, you know, recession.

MARTIN: This is Sabrina Hersi Issa.

ISSA: And there was this huge pervasive sense of scarcity and that if you had a job, you should just be happy to have the job that you have, which means you have to just put up with whatever you're getting served.

MARTIN: Sabrina is a technologist who works for organizations that focus on social change issues. At the end of last year, a prominent progressive public relations firm called FitzGibbon Media shut its doors over multiple sexual-harassment complaints. Sabrina had friends who worked there. And in the wake of the firm's implosion, she cofounded an online forum called Shine Squad. It's a place where women can share their stories about sexual harassment anonymously. She knows her subject, and she speaks the language of advocacy.

ISSA: It's part a needs assessment. We are doing data collection to really measure the scope of the problem in our industry. And then it's part awareness raising and advocacy and trying to co-create solutions to, like, build the movements in the workplaces that we deserve.

MARTIN: For you, is it very clear what defines sexual harassment?

ISSA: Yes.

MARTIN: Tell me.

ISSA: Unwanted comments - about - I mean, it is - you know it.

MARTIN: She was clearly caught off-guard and maybe a little annoyed that I had asked the question. A few minutes later, she made her way back to the issue.

ISSA: I think the problem is, with the question that you asked, is the unpacking that it's not just a single answer. There is a danger of having a single story. There's a danger of having a single definition. And it means that to have something be so cut and dry is actually reductive to the people who are living these experiences.

MARTIN: But in order for a company or an organization to enforce its sexual harassment policies, they have to use one standard, one definition. And that's what makes it so hard. Minna Kotkin says it's clear; things are better today than they were when she was just starting out in her career, in part because there are laws that now protect women from harassment like this.

KOTKIN: What goes on now is, you know, I think it's more uncomfortable environments for women in some industries.

MARTIN: Is that the law's role, to make a workplace comfortable?

KOTKIN: It's a really tough question. I think that - I guess on balance I do think that it may not be the law. But public policy should move in the direction of a workplace where everyone is treated fairly.


MARTIN: Patricia Valoy says one way to do that is to try to encourage more women to work in male-dominated fields. She has learned to manage the comments, the looks, the advances. Patricia's now a senior manager, so she doesn't hesitate to tell someone when he's out of line. And no, it doesn't happen every day. And it's not like the days when the bosses accosted their secretaries.

VALOY: I don't even want to think about a time where it was OK to grab a woman's butt in the workplace. But just because it's not this insidious, it doesn't mean it's not happening. And it doesn't mean it's not affecting women today.


MARTIN: For the Record today we heard from Patricia Valoy, Sabrina Hersi Issa and Minna Kotkin.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.