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Sexual harassment: The evolution of speaking out

Sexual harassment in the workplace is nothing new. So why has it erupted into such a significant issue in recent weeks? In the view of some observers, it's a matter of evolution.

The first bit precipitation in what is now a major deluge is attributed to a case out of Cornell University in New York. In 1975, a former school employee filed for unemployment. She said she left her job because of unwanted touching by a supervisor. The school fought the claim, and in response, the woman organized with others to coin the term sexual harassment and to speak out about it.

To be clear, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 declared that discrimination based on sex is illegal, but it wasn't until 1986 that the U.S. Supreme Court tagged sexual harassment as a covered violation. Since then, there hasn't been much change in the language of the law. However, the number of women claiming to have been harassment victims over the decades has burgeoned. Things now seem to be hitting critical mass with more women, and even men, finding the courage to come forward.

The federal government is not immune. This blog has written previously about the prevalence of sexual harassment in federal agencies. The National Park Service came under the spotlight a couple of times last year. And the agency's own Work Environment Survey from September revealed that nearly 39 percent of agency workers reported being targets of some form of harassment in the previous 12 months.

Conditions are no better on Capitol Hill. Indeed, in the eyes of many, the situation is worse because lawmakers are exempt from the policies that apply across the rest of the government. That dichotomy has sparked Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to begin work on legislation to repair what she describes as a broken system.

Sexual harassment is never OK and most experts would agree it can never be dismissed as accidental. Federal employees subjected to such offensive behavior have reason to be confident in defending their rights and that experienced attorneys stand ready to help.

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