HARASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE

Not since the 1920s has there been more activism on the part of women in protest against male domination. Their current complaint is much different than that of the suffragettes, for it involves sex. This was a taboo topic for women of the ’20s, who were products of the Victorian era. The unintended consequence of such societal restrictions gave men free rein to sexually harass, abuse, humiliate, and denigrate women who would be too embarrassed to publicly complain. She could also be subjected to the time-honored policy of blaming the victim.

There has been much news recently about a big-time movie mogul who is currently under the gun from a platoon of gals alleging not only harassment but assault. This brought up memories from my childhood when there was a lot of talk about how movie starlets “screwed their way to the top.” It was said by those supposedly knowledgeable about the industry that the road to stardom was via a producer’s couch (the “casting couch”), and of course, people said that it was the directors who were taken advantage of, for they were seduced. I don’t recall ever hearing an actress, or anyone else for that matter, complain about sexual abuse. What suffering they may have endured was done silently.

Ah, but how times have changed. Women have come out of the closet en masse, determined to seek retribution in spite of their fears and embarrassment; they instantly changed from shamed to heroic. It doesn’t hurt that one third of all judges in the country are now women and that women can no longer be depended upon to vote the same as do their husbands. Consequently, they have become a political force to be reckoned with.

Among the torrent of disclosures are stories of workplace abuse going back decades. Although I have always found physical abuse abhorrent, I must confess that in years past I was oblivious to the discomfort that even off-color remarks could actually inflict on a woman. Were she to complain, I would undoubtedly accuse her of lacking a sense of humor. When such situations evolved in social situations, Barb was usually there to set me straight. However, when such behaviors occur in the workplace it becomes much more complicated. Indeed, in any situation in which there is a hierarchical power structure, sexual harassment, or even unwanted physical contact, will be initiated by the more powerful person almost without exception.

Of course, this leaves the victim in an untenable position, often forced to choose between tolerating the abuse or putting his or her job in jeopardy. Defensiveness is likely to curry disfavor with her superior which could result in disaster. Not only could chances for promotion become limited, victims could even lose their jobs. They then could be labeled as troublemakers and carry that label with them as they search for a new job. Larger companies are likely to have a Human Resource department where one can lodge a complaint, but they may be more interested in protecting the company than the employee.

The increased number of harassment and abuse charges in the workplace is certain to provide another cash cow for the lawyers who could find such cases as lucrative as auto accidents. For many years, businesses have been concerned about the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. Many have spent large sums on programs designed to educate employees regarding rules for interactions with fellow employees of the opposite sex. As a matter of fact, I was told by a person who had previously worked in a supervisory position for a fortune 500 company that he had been required to repeat such a course annually.

He also said that those accused of sexual improprieties were subject to immediate dismissal. In spite of these efforts, there continued to be complaints of harassment. Those complaints may have been exaggerated at times, for the company, apparently more concerned with reputation than money, initiated a policy of negotiating payments to these complainants in return for a pledge of secrecy without regard to the legitimacy of their complaints.

But, the most flagrant example of the payment of hush money was by the recently exposed Congressional Accountability Office. It was revealed in the November 15th, 2017 issue of USA Today that this office, under direct control of our elected representatives, had paid out over 17 million dollars of taxpayer money with the proviso that such payments remain secret. This had all occurred since the agency was established in 1995, and it got some attention since it involved dollars from the voter’s pocketbook. The inherent assumption that these alleged perpetrators were falsely accused was exemplified by the the caveat that the victims, not the accused, must agree to engage in counseling, another example of blaming the victim without any attempts to confirm or negate the claims.

This reminded me of problems that similar policies caused during the height of the epidemic of medical malpractice suits several years ago. Nearly all physicians carried malpractice insurance, but many found that when they were sued, their insurance company found it cheaper to settle than to fund a court case. Doctors who felt the charges against them were unfounded wanted their “day in court,” but found the terms of their policy did not give them that option unless they wanted to pay the expenses of a trial.

It was a tidy arrangement: the plaintiff could pick up a few thousand bucks, the lawyer would get 20 or 30% of the take for not much more effort than it takes to write a letter, the insurance company avoids the risk of getting one of those multimillion dollar judgments from an unusually sympathetic jury, and everyone is happy except for the doctor who will find himself registered in the National Practitioner Data Bank with a forever sullied reputation. He will be looked on with suspicion when applying for hospital privileges or virtually any professional activity, and if he is unfortunate enough to be sued for the second time, he will probably be forced to hang it up, as he will undoubtedly become uninsurable. I knew a physician whom I thought to be very competent who was forced to end his career prematurely this way. A few of the uninsured risked losing everything by “going bare” i.e. practicing without insurance.

None of this should be construed as to minimize the importance of this issue or to excuse the centuries in which women have been left powerless to defend themselves. It does appear to me that women are on the threshold of finding tools with which they can exert more control over their own lives, and defend themselves from those behaviors they find abhorrent. That is not only as it should be, but as it must be as women gain credibility and status. They may even prove themselves superior in areas previously exclusively occupied by men and, consequently, come to occupy positions of leadership in spite of long held exclusionary policies.

With leadership comes power. Let us hope women will use that power in a more judicious manner than have men, and the traditional “battle of the sexes” will no longer be played out in the workplace. This appears to me to be unlikely, as I believe the reasons for the continuation of the love-hate relationships between the sexes are deeply ingrained in our species, perhaps even in our DNA. This is an issue which I discussed in a previous blog. The women’s movement has a stated goal of equality. After they achieve that goal, perhaps there would even be more problems should they move onto a quest for domination.

Workplace problems do not have a simple solution. There are people of both sexes who have longstanding anger towards members of their opposite gender. How can accusations be adjudicated? Does the policy of paying hush money give the rich license to violate as they please? On the other hand, does it allow those falsely accused to be legally blackmailed? How about flirting—when does it cross the line? When is a friendly attitude mistaken for an invitation to be intimate? It is reported that many office romances end in marriage—would they happen if all were able to ignore another’s appeal? What about relationships between co-workers outside the workplace? What about the use of “feminine wiles” to advance one’s position at the expense of another competing for favorable treatment?
If my assessment of the male’s need to dominate is correct, those who attempt to solve these problems are in for an uphill struggle, for despite society’s best efforts, there remains in mankind only a thin veneer of civilized behavior. Nevertheless, our culture is changing in ways which often conspire to make traditional male-female relationships dysfunctional. I read somewhere that some smart guy said change only occurs with revolution, and revolution is accompanied by chaos. We now appear to be in the midst of the next phase of a revolution that began over 100 years ago. Change is needed. Let us hope that the chaos will be limited and that the change pendulum will not swing too far.

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