Unsought Leadership: How Anita Hill Called Out Workplace Harassment and Changed Everything


Was there ever any domination that did not appear natural to those who possessed it?--John Stuart Mill, 18th century economist

If you’re a woman over 40, you’ve probably had an Anita Hill Moment. That aha when you realized those suggestive comments, undesired gropes, and surreptitious ass-pats you’d long endured in the male-dominated workplace had a name: sexual harassment. 

If you’re under age 40, you probably grew up knowing not only about sexual harassment as a concept, but also that it is a prosecutable offense you shouldn’t put up with it for one minute.  You’ve probably had training about it in your workplace, and know how to report it safely if it rears its ugly head. So whether or not you realized it, you’ve had your Anita Hill moment too.

All because of unsought leadership.

Anita Hill

Credit Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com

Twenty years ago, Hill, an unassuming, elegant, and soft-spoken University of Oklahoma professor, testified under oath to the then all white male U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission several years previously. That both the accuser and the accused are African American escalated the temperature of the rhetoric surrounding the hearings and ignited a media frenzy.

Last column, we talked about how to exert leadership despite not having formal authority or position. Such opportunities are rarely as dramatic as confronting one’s alleged harasser before a Senate committee and, via C-Span, before a riveted public. But they happen everywhere, every day.

My friend Loretta McCarthy, Managing Director of the venture investor consortium Golden Seeds that invests in female-led start-ups, and formerly chief marketing officer for financial giant Oppenheimer Funds and a marketing executive at American Express, told me that in her observation, often the people who know the most about what customers want, for example, are the people with the least formal power in the organization, such as the frontline sales or customer service staff.

But those running the show would be well served to seek them out, and to create welcoming processes through which they can share their knowledge. Remember the Classic Coke debacle? And the more recent tale of how Netflix CEO Reed Hastings disregarded advice not to divide the movie rental services into two parts, causing customers to subscribe to two different services, along with price hikes? They lost 800,000 customers and took a huge revenue bath as a result.

Ever wonder why so many whistleblowers are women?

In many instances, whether profane or profound, leadership isn’t sought but comes to us in the form of a decision crossroads. In those moments of choice, leaders show what they are made of, and new leaders are born. “It is our choices ... that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” as J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series says.

Wikipedia’s list of whistleblowers includes more men than women. But it seems to me that considering women remain fewer than 20% of top leadership positions in companies and organizations across all sectors of the economy, women disproportionately notice power abuses and call them out. Enron’s Sherron Watkins comes to mind.

Because women have traditionally been outside the power structure, perhaps their moral lens remain less obscured by the sense of domination of which John Stewart Mill—who not co-incidentally was an early feminist--speaks in the opening quote above.

Opting Out of Being Co-opted

At a conference marking the Anita Hill—Clarence Thomas events 20th anniversary, held at New York’s Hunter College 10/15, some of my colleagues reported that many women have told them things are worse for women in the workplace since Anita Hill raised the issue of sexual harassment. That’s a common, and understandable, fear-based reaction--one that kept Hill from reporting the incidents at the time they happened.

  • Fear of not being believed.
  • Fear of being seen as a snitch, of not being a team player, of having a personal vendetta.
  • Fear of retaliation—getting fired, not getting that promotion, being cut out of the inner circle.

It’s true that few people come through such confrontations unscathed. Polls at the time that Anita Hill spoke up found that 70% of the public thought she was lying. And in the end, Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court.

Still, important measures of progress are noted in the New York Times editorial “Sexual Harassment 20 Years Later."  Despite warnings that because of how Hill (now a professor at Brandeis) had been publicly treated by the senators, fewer women would come forward to report sexual harassment, claims increased by 50 % the year after the hearings. And in FY 2010, claims of sexual harassment brought to the E.E.O.C. and state and local fair employment commissions were almost double that of 1991.

1992 became known as “The Year of the Woman” in politics, as women flocked to the polls and pulled the levers for female candidates in record numbers.

The Violence Against Women Act was passed in 1994, a direct consequence of men behaving badly on the Senate Judiciary committee receiving the fury of the millions of women who did believe Anita Hill.

New organizations like V-Day and Hollaback! have sprung up to empower women—and men---who are sexually harassed on the street, at work, at home, or elsewhere.

And a hotel maid is now taken seriously when she says she was sexually assaulted by one of the most powerful men in the world.

Hill’s unsought but courageously assumed leadership changed sexual harassment from something that women like me thought was “just the way things are” to something everyone knows is wrong.

And for that I, along with so many other women, am eternally grateful.

Please share your thoughts:

When was your Anita Hill moment?

What more needs to be done to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace?

What examples of unsought leadership have you or others you know taken? What happened as a result?


Gloria Feldt




In order to comment on BlogHer.com, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.