Gillian Thomas Speaks of the Power of Storytelling to CSI Students
By: Olivia Frasca
Gillian Thomas, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, spoke to CSI students about the progress made before and during the #MeToo Movement.
Following the sexual assault scandals against Harvey Weinstein in 2017, many other victims have come forward to bravely tell their stories.
What started then is now known as the #MeToo Movement, a movement that has broken the silence surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace on a state and national level.
The Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU works to overcome gender bias in the workplace and provides women with the resources needed to claim their rights. Thomas begins her lecture by discussing the historical background of sexual harassment.
This type of abuse was largely unheard of and barely conceptualized in the mid-20th century. Victims did not define their encounter as sexual harassment, but rather as a burden they had to bear.
How did this silent abuse become the cornerstone of last year’s powerful movement? People spoke up.
The attorney discussed a key Supreme Court case that put sexual harassment on the map: Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. Mechelle Vinson worked as a bank teller in the 70s and was forced to give sexual favors to her boss if she wanted to keep her job.
After she was fired from the bank, she filed a civil lawsuit against her employer.
In 1986, The Supreme Court ruled sexual harassment as a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically Title VII.
Although it has been against the law for 30 years, studies have shown that more than 80% of American women have experienced some form of sexual harassment. 75% of these women do not report it, Thomas adds.
There is a power imbalance in certain workplaces, along with legal circumstances that protect the employer, she reveals. Harassment is ripe in the workplace, where women are not welcomed in male-dominated industries.
The delay in recognizing sexual assault as a serious offense was a cultural problem too. 20th century movies, advertisements, and television display sexual harassment under the guise of comedy and “old school” humor.
The abused often do not report their abusers in fear of being threatened or fired. Harassment comes at a tremendous cost to victims; Dr. Christine Blasey Ford faced death threats after she came forward about her high school encounter with Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
The ACLU attorney explains that forced arbitration is a business practice that also poses an obstacle to victims coming forward. In this case, the victim does not get a fair trial by jury, but instead faces a panel of arbitrators that are often hired by the company.
She also revealed that pursuing legal action for sexual assault may have a time limit in some states, otherwise known as a statute of limitations.
Title VII does not provide a clear definition of sex discrimination either. It is up to the courts to interpret the law in the eyes of a case. As a result, different interpretations of Title VII can warp the degree of harassment.
The country has taken actions over the past year to combat this abuse in light of the #MeToo Movement. Many states have prohibited contracts that protect employees from harassment claims.
The agricultural industry is known for having the worst cases of sexual harassment in the workplace. Thomas shares that tomato and dairy farmers have recently taken steps to protect their workers too.
For example, the Fair Food Program is an agreement between farms, farmworkers, and major food corporations. The program ensures that companies such as McDonald’s, Walmart, and Trader Joe’s only purchase products from farms with positive and fair working practices.
As for the abusers, Thomas believes it is what they do when they re-enter society that matters. Those that have crossed the line need to acknowledge the effects they have caused in order to break the stigma.
She wrapped up the lecture by discussing the importance of educating youth, the generation that is growing up amidst the #MeToo Movement.
Elementary and secondary schools require students to learn about their Title IX rights, detailed in the Education Amendments of 1972.
At the end of the hour, Thomas leaves the audience with a powerful message: We need to hold others accountable for their actions while keeping the conversation about sexual harassment alive.
There is no one size fits all solution to this issue, Thomas concludes. The #MeToo Movement, however, has shown that there is only one way to break the stigma: tell your story.