Workplace Sexual Harassment, the Power Pinch, and Don’t be One of Those Girls


John Oliver's piece on Workplace Sexual Harassment is mandatory viewing for women and men.

In Episode 18 of Last Week Tonight, Emmy and Peabody Award winning comedian, satirist and political commentator, John Oliver takes on the issue of Workplace Sexual Harassment drawing upon a collage of old workplace training videos, documentary news, interviews and sound bites.

He then goes on to interview Professor Anita Hill. Anita Hill became a national figure in the US in 1991 when she accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, her supervisor at the time, of sexual harassment. She testified for 8 hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee, enduring humiliating questions from the panel. She is now a university professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University, Massachusetts.

Last Week Tonight, Series 5, Episode 18 is available to view on Foxtel Comedy Channel or HBO download. Note: If you are unfamiliar with the HBO Series “Last Week Tonight” presented by John Oliver, please be aware that the content contains strong language, adult themes and sexual references.

About 15 minutes into the episode, John Oliver opens the segment on Workplace Sexual Harassment by saying “We are on the verge of a national reckoning with sexual harassment. Major companies like Ford have had to pay multi-million dollar settlements and promised to change their corporate culture, a wave of women are now running for office in what’s being called the ‘Year of the Woman’, ‘Times Up’ was even a theme of this year’s Oscar show. Unfortunately everything I just said also describes the 1990s when powerful companies like Ford paid out multi-million dollar settlements and promised to change their culture and a wave of women ran for office in 1992 prompting it to be called the ‘Year of the Woman’ and that theme was the backdrop for the 1993 Oscars [cut to the musical number by Liza Minnelli].

“That national conversation was largely kick started in 1991 by the experience of Anita Hill, who testified for 8 hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing of Judge Clarence Thomas. The point here is, time was supposed to be up in 1981 and in 1991 and now time is supposed to be up again. Will this go around be any different?”

John Oliver starts his interview with Anita Hill by posing the question: “It has been 27 years since you testified in front of the Senate. What has changed in that time?”

Anita Hill: There has been a tremendous amount of change. There has been a change in public attitude and there has been a change in the amount of information that we have about sexual harassment. There is certainly more awareness after the #MeToo movement. Even a few years ago, people were ambivalent about what the consequences should be if someone is behaving incredibly badly and abusing people they work with.

People were aware of it but there was no consensus on what should we do about it. You can fix the women, you can fix the guys or you can fix the culture and if we fix the guys and change the culture, we won’t need to fix the women.

So far much of the approaches we have had is to put all of the burden on women and one of the questions I’ve gotten that sort of sticks out for me is ‘how do we raise our daughter to make sure that she does not set herself up to be a victim for sexual harassment?’. These are the kinds of things we are thinking. If we fix her then she won’t encounter this problem. In reality, she is not the problem.

John Oliver: Let’s talk about men’s role regarding trying to fix sexual harassment. Do men have a role in that discussion?

Anita Hill: Yes. We need you to step up and realise that at this point in time there are no innocent by-standers. If you are aware of something, you acknowledge it, you know it is wrong but you don’t do anything about it, then it’s the same as participating in it.

John Oliver: Is it worth trying to spot some of the ingenuous questions out there? Because one of the refrains you hear is, ‘Where is the line?’ But it seems that is often in search for the answer that will identify exactly how close to the line they can get. So if an 8 second hug is unacceptable, they say great, I’m doing a 7 1/2 second hug and filling it with as much creepiness and I can.

Anita Hill: Unfortunately, to some extent, the law has allowed this to happen. That it was bad, but it wasn’t quite bad enough…so the law has tolerated that so part of the change has to be the law. One of the things that often happens is that the law of discrimination relies on intent. Did they intend to harm? Well, if you are a victim, it does matter so much whether they intended…There are repercussions and consequences regardless of what your intent was.

John Oliver: We have seen a lot of men saying they are absolutely terrified of being alone with a woman now. Should they be scared?

Anita Hill: Not if they’re not harassers…The whole idea of fake claims is another one of those road blocks that people throw off. Well, that really hasn’t manifested itself. It doesn’t mean that it never happens but they are so rare and it seems to me that we don’t need to make rules around the things that rarely happen until we finish making the rules around the things that are happening regularly. I will also add that in terms of my display of contempt [during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing], you know, I have lived through a lot of challenges and having questions thrown at me to challenge my competency, as a woman, as a woman of colour, 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.

John Oliver: What are the ways we can actually tackle the problem of workplace harassment?

Anita Hill: Well, one of the things we need to do to change the culture and actually convince people we are serious about it is to publicise the policies and inform people: This is what happens if you file a complaint, here are the things you will do, here are the questions that you will face, here is the process. I also think that there is management things that we can do, for example, bystander training because I think people are still somewhat saying ‘Well, I don’t know what to do’.

John Oliver: I think back now to myself in the workplace and I can’t honestly say that I consistently spoke up when I saw creepy behaviour, especially when I was on the lower end of the power dynamic and I didn’t necessarily feel empowered to speak out and say that’s wrong. That’s a pretty poor excuse but it’s probably how I felt. How should I feel about myself other than slightly ashamed?

Anita Hill: Slightly ashamed is a good start.

John Oliver: That’s a very kind way of putting it. Actual shame would be the very least destination I would aim for.

Anita Hill: You know, sometimes shame is helpful to feel. Sometimes it is not helpful and it just makes people feel guilty and even resentful. So you have to hit this at a time when people feel empathetic and not just embarrassed or ashamed of themselves. If you were to go back to some of those situations, let’s pick one, what would you do now?

John Oliver: I can probably just say ‘That was pretty creepy, right?’

Anita Hill: That’s a real sort of manly thing to do. Would you, might you, also go on to say to the person who is feeling the brunt of this and say ‘How are you’, ‘How does this make you feel’, ‘Would you like for me to say something?’

John Oliver: Yeah, it’s kind of sad that that’s not the instinctive reaction.

Anita Hill: Well there are sadder reactions.

John Oliver: How optimistic are you allowing yourself to be right now in terms of are things going to change?

Anita Hill: I’m certainly more optimistic that I was 27 years ago!

John Oliver: That’s a low bar.

Anita Hill: A very low bar. But even then I was somewhat optimistic because I have seen people step up. I’ve heard from women whose lives have been changed because things happened differently when they went forward with their complaint than they would have expected it to happen before. So I am hopeful.

After furthur discussion, the interview concludes with Anita Hill’s remark: “I will say that if we do nothing, the change is not going to come.”

Last Week Tonight, Series 5, Episode 18 is available to view on Foxtel Comedy Channel or HBO download. Note: If you are unfamiliar with the HBO Series “Last Week Tonight” presented by John Oliver, please be aware that the content contains strong language, adult themes and sexual references.