Making a Positive Impact Together
March 04, 2024 - MoFo Diversity

Celebrating Black History Month: A Conversation with Anita Hill

MoFo continued its celebration of Black History Month by hosting a fireside chat with Washington, D.C. partner Val Dahiya and guest speaker Anita Hill. A Brandeis University Professor of Law, Social Policy & Women’s and Gender Studies and advocate for equality and civil rights, Anita is perhaps best-known for her 1991 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, accusing then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

Anita’s testimony left millions of Americans who viewed it on television uncertain about the outcome and many doubtful of Anita’s accusations; what remained was the notion that it was nothing more than an “obscene spectacle.” Yet, more than 30 years later, as we reflect on the positive legal and cultural changes around the issue of gender-based violence and racial equality, Anita’s 1991 testimony was the beginning of a diverse effort that changed the way individuals view not only various forms of gender abuse, but diversity and inclusion efforts as a whole.

Anita opened with a discussion of the movement against DEI efforts since Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law SB 17, banning DEI offices and programs in public universities and colleges, as well as the Supreme Court’s landmark decision nearly two weeks later ending race-based admissions policies in higher education.

Anita explained that, since the Supreme Court’s ruling, its reach appears to be broader than race in admissions, with messaging that signals the end of DEI in workplaces. Whether it is fear of lawsuits or DEI fatigue, companies have been using the Court’s recent ruling as an opportunity to uproot their DEI programs. Yet, as Anita stated, companies should take a more nuanced approach, and they have a fiduciary duty to shareholders to do so for several reasons: many shareholders have called for greater DEI efforts within corporations; boards should consider their commitments already made to DEI; and boards should assess financial consequences of abandoning DEI, including the value proposition showing there is value that comes from diverse workforces. Boards need to treat DEI like any other business commitment.

DEI goes beyond the economic impact it has on corporations; it supports the cultural change we are experiencing, a movement that has had impact over time. Looking back since her testimony years ago, Anita acknowledged the progress that has been made. “I know we haven’t solved the problem, but we are more aware and engaged in solving it now than ever before in our country.”

She added that people have been given more of a voice to enact legal and cultural change. Since 1991, there has come greater awareness and an understanding that systemic change is needed. Public discourse about harassment, gender, and racial equity and diverse political representation has revealed how systems have failed to ensure that victims receive the protections afforded to them under the law. Anita’s testimony also fueled an increase in women’s political participation, up significantly since 1991, when only two women were represented in the U.S. Senate. These conversations, and several others, have served as a catalyst to drive increased civil rights legislation between 1991 and now.

“The point is that the faces of the conversations that brought us here were diverse. As we celebrate Black History Month, let’s not forget that the struggle for social justice has been a common theme,” stated Anita. “The inclusion of diverse perspectives and experiences is what makes human progress possible.”