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How an understanding of sexual harassment developed

Many California workers may not realize that the phrase "sexual harassment" was only coined in 1975 by a group of women at Cornell University. Before that time, no single phrase existed to describe the sexual advances and other predatory behavior that women faced on the job. The phrase came into wider circulation after it was used in a New York Times headline, and one women's magazine found that 80 percent of readers surveyed said they had experienced sexual harassment at work.

Three court cases in the 1970s confirmed that women were protected from sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. However, there was still resistance to the idea that women were blameless in sexual harassment cases. The efforts of Catherine MacKinnon as well as those of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission director at the time were critical in changing laws. A watershed moment was the 1991 testimony of Anita Hill whose allegations of sexual harassment when she worked under Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas ultimately did not block his confirmation to the court but did bring the issue before the public eye in a new way.

Same-sex harassment in the workplace was found to be illegal by the Supreme Court in 1998. However, even though laws have continued to change to reflect a more nuanced understanding of the issues, women in a number of industries are still subject to this type of behavior.

People who feel they are facing sexual harassment on the job may want to consult an attorney about their rights. Although the first best course of action may be to try to address the channel through human resources or a supervisor, an attorney may be able to advise on whether the incident or incidents could be legally considered sexual harassment and how to avoid unlawful retaliation when they report the harassment.

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