It was early November, 1991, and it was my last day at my job. I was making the rounds and saying my goodbyes, and my boss asked if it was OK if he hugged me. Anita Hill’s testimony at Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings was recent news, and people we being very careful about what might – or might not – be considered sexual harassment. (For the record, I was fine with a farewell hug from my boss.)
And here we are again…Due to the recent publication of Thomas’ memoirs, we’re having flashbacks, while at the same time a high-profile harassment suit against the coach of the New York Knicks has recently been settled in the plaintiff’s favor.
The issue of sexual harassment touches on imbalances of power and on gender politics – and in any given situation, it can be hard to assess what plays a bigger role. It may be unwelcome attention, or it may be an uncomfortable environment, or it may be inappropriate behavior; it doesn’t matter what form it takes, and when you broaden the context like that, many women (and more men than might want to admit it) have been subjected to it. And in that broad context, more people may have inflicted it too, even if unintentionally. It’s complicated, it happens, and as Working Girl notes, like it or not, it’s not going away any time soon.
These stories make the news because someone is willing to speak out. That can be a tough decision, and can still backfire on the speaker, even now – Michelle Goodman talks about the questions and consequences surrounding that decision.
Most of us in the workplace have been through some sort of training about how to recognize and respond to – and not commit – sexual harassment. Anita Bruzzese offers a quick refresher on both sides of the matter with these questions:
Do you kid around in a sexual way?
Do you generally direct your humor to members of the opposite sex?
Do you tell racy jokes no matter who is listening?
Do you think members of the opposite sex are less able than you are?
Do you frequently make remarks about how people look?
Do you use obscene language when things go wrong?
Do you tend to touch people when you talk to them?
Do you make comments that are a put-down to one gender?
Do you ignore the no’s when asking someone for a date until you get a yes?
Do you use sexual comments and gestures to intimidate people or gain power?
Do you ignore conduct that you really think could be sexual harassment?
I’ve been fortunate not to have had many problems with this in my work life; it may be partly because I’ve worked in heavily female offices, and it really hasn’t come up in the balance-of-power context. For me, the unwelcome-attention factor is more critical – if it’s unwelcome, unwanted, and objectionable, then it can be considered harassment. But for me, this is also where it can get tricky. I’m looking at Anita’s list of questions and reflecting on situations I’ve observed. I’ve seen cases where women haven’t raised any objections to some of these behaviors – because they find the men engaged in them attractive, and it’s considered friendly or benignly flirtatious. I think this sort of double standard makes observing boundaries and drawing lines tougher than it already is, and further confuses the situation. This ambiguity and lack of consistency in behavior standards may be one reason that this issue isn’t going away any time soon.