An accuser's dilemma

TO SOME PEOPLE, women who make sexual harassment charges are presumed to be bimbos in search of 15 minutes of fame as centerfolds or product-endorsers.

But to all who watched her news conference Monday, it was apparent that Anita Hill's charge that Clarence Thomas harassed her with explicit descriptions of pornographic films when she was his special assistant in the early 1980s contradicts this assumption.


Anyone or any body hiring or confirming a man charged with harassment should keep in mind the message conveyed by women like Hill, who try to succeed in male-dominated worlds such as law and medicine. (Hill is a tenured professor at the University of Oklahoma Law Center.)

Frances Conley, a neurosurgeon on the Stanford Medical School faculty, offers comparable insight into sexual harassment in the workplace. Last June, she resigned abruptly as chief of neurosurgery at the Stanford Veterans Hospital, as chairman of the academic senate of the medical school and as a tenured professor. Conley later disclosed that she had been subject to sexual harassment throughout her 25 years in neurosurgery. Male peers repeatedly invited her to go to bed with them, fondled her leg in meetings and commented on the shape of her breasts.


The questions put to Hill Monday were the questions put to Conley. Why didn't she file a complaint at the time the harassment occurred? Why did she continue to associate with the harasser(s)? Why is she going public now?

Conley told Time magazine: "I decided that I would go along because I wanted to get to where I wanted to be. I really wanted to be a neurosurgeon. I thought I could be a good neurosurgeon. Had I made an issue of some of the things that were happening during the time I was a resident, I wouldn't have gotten to where I am." She returned to Stanford in August, only after receiving assurances that steps would be taken to end the climate of sexual intimidation in the medical school.

The dilemma of the two women is common: Keep silent or risk destroying the hard-won gains of years of education and rigorous training.

It was only in 1986, three years after Hill stopped working for Thomas, first in the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights and then at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that the Supreme Court confirmed the pre-existing federal Court confirmed the pre-existing federal guidelines and lower court opinions that gave women legal protection from sexual predators in the workplace.

Thus, we are just beginning to hear stories, long suppressed, from those who kept silent for fear of losing opportunities for advancement. There are seldom, if ever, first-hand witnesses to sexual coercion by a workplace supervisor.

This means the accuser, in the spotlight, often stands to lose more than the accused.

Emma Coleman Jordan, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, is president-elect of the Association of American Law Schools.