MUCH LIKE Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee about being sexually harassed, allegations of serial misconduct by Bill O’Reilly can be seen two ways. Ms. Hill’s riveting testimony did not stop the Supreme Court confirmation of Clarence Thomas, who denied the charges, but it brought sexual harassment to the forefront of national attention. Similarly, disclosure of about $13 million in payouts to settle the claims of five women who said they were harassed by Mr. O’Reilly has yet to derail the Fox News host’s career. But he and Fox News have paid a price: Advertisers not wanting to be seen as tolerating sexual harassment fled “The O’Reilly Factor” in droves.
There is no question that workplace sexual harassment persists, but it is also clear there has been progress in recognizing it as a problem that must not be shunted back into the shadows.
What is perhaps most disturbing about the disclosures about Mr. O’Reilly is how, as Ms. Hill observed in a Post op-ed, “sadly familiar” the story is. As the New York Times reported in its damning account of the roughly $13 million paid out over 15 years, women who worked for Mr. O’Reilly or appeared on his show complained about a range of alleged behavior, including verbal abuse, lewd comments and unwanted advances, charges denied by Mr. O’Reilly. Similar allegations forced the ouster past summer of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. Outside of Fox News, revelations have emerged in the past month of complaints from women about hostile work environments at Sterling Jewelers, Tesla and Uber.
The prevalence of sexual harassment — even 25 years after Ms. Hill’s testimony — was underscored by the individual accounts of women who took to social media (#droporeilly) to describe their experiences of being groped and propositioned and assaulted in the workplace. For many, it was the first time they spoke publicly about the harassment because they either were ashamed to talk about their humiliating experiences or were afraid of retaliation.
Breaking the silence that protects and enables sexual abuse is critical. Many companies obligate their employees to sign contracts when they are hired that require any complaints — including charges of sexual harassment and discrimination — to be settled by arbitration. Perhaps there is reason in some cases for mediation to avoid costly and lengthy litigation, but strict secrecy rules that prevent public disclosure need to be reformed. Silencing women who have been victimized inhibits other victims from coming forward and allows the abuser to stay in place with no accountability.
It remains to be seen what will happen to Mr. O’Reilly. People who continue to watch him, advertisers who stick with him and those who defend him — including President Trump, who said, “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong” — minimize sexual harassment and the harm it does. Real change, Ms. Hill wrote, depends on how society responds: “The social and financial consequences of tolerating an abusive environment must become untenable for employers.”