Why Cain's accusers, under scrutiny, may seek strength in numbers

The price can be high for women who make allegations of sexual harassment or impropriety, say their defenders, and solidarity can help. A press conference by at least two Cain accusers is being considered. 

Mark Blinch/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate, businessman Herman Cain, gestures as he speaks at the CNBC Republican presidential debate in Rochester, Michigan, November 9.

The women who have accused Herman Cain of sexual harassment or impropriety have faced intense scrutiny from both the Cain campaign and the media.

Their motives have been questioned. They’ve been called liars. Financial and employment records have in some cases been laid bare. And some Cain supporters have gone so far as to label the women with offensive, sexually stereotyped slurs.

There’s a longstanding pattern of treating women this way when they bring charges of sexual harassment, discrimination, or assault – especially against people in power, say women’s equity advocates. Despite progress in laws and employer policies to protect against sexual harassment, they say, it’s still difficult and intimidating to level such claims in the workplace, let alone publicly.

“A classic response by those who are accused of sexual harassment is to victimize the victim and really up the ante for anyone who makes the charges –that includes drudging up anything you can find in the person’s background, whether or not it’s relevant to the claim,” says Deborah Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif. “Very few of us could stand up to the kind of scrutiny that’s oftentimes focused on women who come forward in these cases."

On Wednesday, a lawyer hired by Mr. Cain warned other women to “think twice” before making sexual harassment allegations against the GOP presidential candidate, The New York Times reports.

Professor Rhode acknowledges that some scrutiny can be legitimate, especially in cases where the accused is in a high-profile situation such as Cain’s presidential campaign. “If [the accuser has] a pattern of making false accusations, you want to know that, but other material that’s prejudicial should be not given a lot of credence,” she says.

When the charges against Cain surfaced, none of the complainants who received settlements was named, and potential GOP primary voters seemed to largely shrug off the issue. Indeed, Cain continues to do well in polls in key swing states.

But three women have now made public statements about Cain’s behavior (one of them alleging not harassment but related inappropriate behavior) – and it's possible that one or more who have remained anonymous will come forward this week in a press conference with multiple accusers.

That kind of solidarity can be helpful to those who are alleging sexual harassment, law and gender experts say.

“It is very difficult to stand out there by yourself and make a charge of discrimination of any sort, but in the company of other people sharing similar stories, that can mean you might be able to experience less retaliation, [or that the company may make] some sort of policy changes,” says Fatima Goss Graves, vice president of education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington.

Asserting a pattern of misconduct may also make it more difficult for the Cain campaign to dismiss the charges or to impugn the credibility or motives of the accusers.

There needs to be “a substantive response [by Cain] rather than an attempt to blame other people for why the allegations have surfaced at this time,” says Lisalyn Jacobs, vice president for government relations at Legal Momentum, a women’s legal defense group in Washington.

Sharon Bialek became the first to publicly describe an allegation of sexual misconduct by Cain. At a press conference Nov. 7, she said she was doing so “on behalf of all women who are sexually harassed in the workplace but do not come [forward] out of fear of retaliation or public humiliation.”

Once an employee of the National Restaurant Association, but not at the time that the behavior allegedly occurred in 1997, Ms. Bialek said Cain reached into her skirt and pushed her head toward his groin when they were in a parked car, and when she protested, she said Cain’s response was, “You want a job, right?”

Cain’s campaign sent out an e-mail outlining Bialek’s troubled financial history and suggesting she wants to gain financially from her claims, a charge she has denied.

Karen Kraushaar, who received a settlement from the National Restaurant Association in 1999 for a claim of harassment against Cain, who led the organization at the time, became more outspoken this week after her name was revealed in the press.

Since then, stories have emerged about a complaint she filed several years later about unfair treatment and a sexually discriminatory e-mail sent by a manager at a different workplace.

Ms. Kraushaar says that’s not relevant, nor is it an indication of an out-to-get-you mentality that some would like to attribute to her, the Associated Press reports.

Kraushaar’s attorney, Joel Bennet, is planning a joint press conference for her, Bialek, and any other women who want to go public with their stories on this matter, Politico reports.

When several accusers have come forward with claims about sexual harassment, it’s common to find “that the [accused] person has done similar things in the same place or a previous setting– it’s a behavior pattern that they don’t believe is inappropriate,” says attorney Ralph Torres of Denver, who has represented both employees and employers in various sexual harassment cases.

But a settlement doesn’t necessarily mean the accused is guilty, Mr. Torres notes. Sometimes it’s just a practical matter for a company to spend less money on a settlement than it would have to spend on a court battle.

All the attention the accusations are receiving in the media could raise awareness among employers and employees – a reminder that it’s important to understand and follow policies regarding sexual harassment, law and gender experts say.

People often remain unclear about what behavior is appropriate, says Ms. Jacobs of Legal Momentum. On a Washington radio show recently, a caller asked if hugging someone at work who had lost a loved one could result in claims of harassment. Jacobs had to explain the basics – that usually harassment involves an egregious incident, a pattern of unwanted advances, or behavior that creates a hostile work environment.

“Each time one of these celebrated cases happens, it does raise public consciousness ... and serves as a useful deterrent ... to people seeking any kind of public position,” says Rhode of Stanford. “[Cain’s] not getting a free pass here. This is now the subject of the campaign debate, and it really does put some of the burden on people who say they don’t think it’s relevant [to the election] to explain why.”

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