September 19, 2019 Book Review

Lauren Rikleen’s The Shield of Silence

By Keith Roberts

Clear and easy to follow, readers will find The Shield of Silence a well-written and useful guide to the current state of workplace sexual harassment. But the book is also one of big ideas. The author, Lauren Rikleen, is well qualified to advocate an end to workplace discrimination against women. An experienced attorney, she has written numerous books and articles about women at work, and her efforts have earned many awards, including the ABA’s Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award in 2017.

The author presents a number of causes contributing to the pervasiveness of workplace sexual harassment delving into reasons why victims and witnesses of sexual harassment and gender discrimination don’t speak up. She also identifies factors contributing to why workplace cultures tolerate sexual discrimination. Laying these foundations, Rikleen hits her stride with a comprehensive discussion on effective solutions to bring about change.

Although Rikleen identifies why workplace sexual discrimination exists—to support the social status of those who do it, as expressions of bias, particularly unconscious bias, against women or others in marginalized communities—her main interest is why the misconduct remains pervasive despite laws, institutional rules, and moral strictures that condemn it. She answers with an extensive and nuanced analysis of the dangers and difficulties of speaking up, resulting in a “pervasive silence steeped in fear” from victims and witnesses. Accordingly, within—by my count—some 22 ideas for making cultures more supportive of a respectful workplace environment, she devotes particular attention to taking down this “shield of silence.”

Although not focused on sexual discrimination law, Shield of Silence hardly neglects it. In fact, the inspiration for the book came from a sexual harassment study Rikleen conducted for the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts. She shows how few types of sexual discrimination risk formal punishment under civil or criminal laws, including Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. She also describes measures that compel silence, such as the widespread use of nondisclosure agreements when complaints of discrimination are settled, and various impediments to victims’ legal recourse, including Supreme Court decisions hampering Title VII enforcement.

What distinguishes The Shield of Silence from the vast literature on sexual discrimination is Rikleen’s sophisticated perspective. While fully acknowledging the ills of workplace sexual discrimination and noting famous recent incidents of it in many fields, including law firms and the judiciary, Rikleen shows that sexual harassment is but a flagrant form of the pervasive sexual discrimination that she addresses. Indeed, she cites various academic studies, concluding that sexual harassment is not about sex, but rather it’s a use of power to demean women, whether overtly as in sexual misconduct or unfair treatment, or more subtly as in social behavior. It’s not about law, either, because most sexual discrimination is beyond law’s reach.

Editor’s Note: The Editorial Board of Perspectives would like to thank Keith Roberts and The Judges’ Journal of the American Bar Association Judicial Division for contributing this article.

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By Keith Roberts