After the Congressional testimonies of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh in September, professor Anita Hill met with students at Brandeis University to discuss and process the event.
“There were a range of feelings,” said the attorney, known for her own testimony accusing then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. “Anger, a feeling of disgust with leadership, and unfortunately a feeling of abandonment—a sense that they were not recognized, their experiences weren’t recognized.”
Hill said the students have been very engaged in the effort to combat sexual violence on college campuses, where currently one in four women can expect to be sexually assaulted during their time at school.
“They have put a lot of energy in it and taken a lot of risk to make known the problem of sexual assault for their generation,” she said Wednesday at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
Many women felt rage watching the Kavanaugh confirmation, Hill acknowledged, but disagreed with the idea that the outcome—Kavanaugh was later confirmed—meant no progress had been made in the 27 years since her own appearance on Capitol Hill.
“Maybe the Senate hasn’t changed enough, but we have,” she said. “And there’s a new generation of women coming up who are going to be even more empowered for change.”
That change needs to be large and institutional, Hill told a ballroom of executives, from college campuses to the workplace.
“I think we have to understand the root problem for what it is,” she said. “It’s not just about sexual harassment. In many ways, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It is about the abuse of power that occurs.”
Hill added: “We have to see this as a problem of power—power alignment and abuse, overall.”
If you don’t look at the issue as a comprehensive problem, it’s like playing whac-a-mole attempting to address instances of harassment as they occur, Hill said. Organizations instead need to understand the ways that people in positions of power can, and do, take advantage of others in the workplace.
“One way abuse of power is manifested is through sexual harassment,” she said. “But it’s also manifested through pay inequity. It’s also manifested through lack of leadership opportunities. It’s also manifested just by day to day aggressions that occur.”
It’s the power dynamic that often makes it difficult for people to report sexual misconduct. In the workplace, 75% of employees who report sexual harassment experience retaliation from managers or coworkers.
Because the fear of retaliation is real, companies need to make it clear from the highest levels that sexual misconduct will not be tolerated and create a standard process to rectify reports of harassment, Hill said.
“We need to make sure that we have very clear policies that are accessible and let people know, if they come forward, exactly what is going to happen to them,” she said.
It’s also important an employee knows that there will be an outcome when an issue is raised, rather than it disappearing into a human resources file, Hill added. It will require organizations to implement strong policies and live up to the promises they make to workers to begin to reduce the rates of sexual assault and harassment.
“We have to view this as a cultural problem, not a behavioral problem,” Hill said. “Do not be content with the idea that if we fire one or two high profile people, we’ve changed the culture of an institution. That is just not accurate. It’s not true and it’s not going to be effective.”