A commission to combat sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be created

Sexual harassment, like sex itself, continues to easily capture headlines, but we go blank when it comes to actually doing something about it.  Solutions are inevitably elusive for personal interactions that are most often unwitnessed and uncorroborated.  Sexual harassment was not even a violation of workplace anti-discrimination laws when I became chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1977, nearly 15 years after Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed. The EEOC held hearings and issued guidelines, finding that sexual harassment is a violation of Title VII, and the Supreme Court subsequently upheld our guidelines as lawful.  Most important, the EEOC officially defined sexual harassment, for the first time, as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature.” The guidelines clarified that the conduct must make compliance a condition of either employment or employment decisions, or it must interfere with an individual’s performance on the job.

Today, sexual harassment is being discussed as if everyone knows what it is.  Some women have described contact that is more akin to sexual assault, while others have cited contact that would not be harassment unless it were unwelcome.  We are already hearing of risks that employers will overcorrect by becoming wary of hiring some women or being alone with female employees, or that ordinary human relations will become chilled.

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Women everywhere are indebted to those who have understood sexual harassment when they experienced it and have done a public service by taking the risk of stepping forward one by one to call out their harassers.  They have given life to the #MeToo movement and brought sexual harassment to the forefront of the American mindset. Yet, what these women, even the least well known, had in common is that they accused powerful and well-known men, such as Harvey Weinstein.

Despite the national concern, the sexual harassment that occurs in everyday workplaces across America has not been much discussed.  The evidence of this harassment is particularly clear from the more than 12,000 complaints filed every year with the EEOC by Americans who work in jobs everywhere, from offices and factories to restaurants and universities.  We will not be able to move from “what happened to me” to what to do until we hear from a broader cross-section of the workforce.

Fortunately, sexual harassment is an issue that is not part of today’s polarized politics.  Polls indicate that nearly nine in 10 Americans believe that zero-tolerance should be the policy for sexual harassment.  Both Democrats and Republicans serving in Congress have been exposed for sexual harassment and pressured to leave Congress.  Both parties appear equally opposed.  This common concern would be even clearer if Congress held hearings focusing on the American people whose daily experiences with sexual harassment we know little about.  Witnesses from a variety of occupations would help drive home the ubiquitous and apolitical nature of the problem.  Broad, evidence-based information is always required for effective action.

The subject may require deeper national study than congressional hearings, however. I am introducing a bill to create a national commission to find ways to combat sexual harassment nationwide in workplaces, modeled on legislation Congress has enacted to combat other major national problems, such as gambling.  A commission could summon witnesses from a cross section of states and of the American workplace.  Experts could testify about best practices for preventing sexual harassment.

We have remedies in federal law, such as the EEOC guidelines, its complaint process, and the courts, but the women who have come forward show that sexual harassment is still widespread.  Today’s sexual harassment in the workplace must contend with a culture fast-tracked by new modes of communication, such as the internet and social media.  Congress has a responsibility to help find answers to a difficult problem that has infiltrated every sector, including its own.  The bipartisan nature of the issue is plain. 

Establishing a national commission on sexual harassment and similar inappropriate behavior would signal to the country that Congress understands we are confronted with a problem of major proportions for women and men who work every day, as well as their employers.  In order to address sexual harassment, like national problems in the past, Congress must go nationwide to learn what should come next.

Eleanor Holmes NortonEleanor Holmes NortonTwo lives cut too short in vastly different ways Major League Soccer player comes out publicly as gay Congress looks to boost commercial space transport MORE is the District of Columbia’s representative in Congress