October 3rd, 2007
Anita Hill’s op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday triggered a trip down memory lane for me, kind of like one of those “Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” moments. And I’m a-gonna take you with me…
In 1990, I was fairly clueless, certainly when it came to matters of sexual harassment. Only a year earlier, I’d been ass-swatted and propositioned repeatedly by a crazy managing editor at the weekly piece-of-crap community newspaper that hired me straight out of college. When the boss wasn’t rambling on about his “days back in ‘Nam,” he was either ogling the breasts of his female cub reporters or waxing unpoetic about the things he’d do to us behind closed doors if only he were 20 years younger. Lacking any reference point of Proper Workplace Conduct, I chalked it all up to Loser Has-Been Middle-Aged Guy With A Touch Of PTSD Syndrome and nervously laughed it off. The fact that I didn’t speak up and put this dirty old letch in his place still horrifies me today. Had I known then what I know now, I wouldn’t hesitate to put my paltry paycheck (less than $200 a week) on the line to paste that pecker to the wall.
A year later, the professional rep of Professor Anita Hill was on trial, so to speak, during the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I’d moved from the newspaper in LA to a progressive book publishing company in NY, where my co-workers and I watched a 6-inch B&W portable TV in horror as a bunch of cranky old white guys on Capitol Hill lambasted Hill for speaking out about pervy Thomas’ inappropriate advances, incessant talk of sex and porn, and pubic-hair-on-the-Coke-can commentary when she’d worked for him years earlier — curiously, at the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. It was then that I started to (duh!) connect the dots: my mom hadn’t been marching with an “ERA Now!” sign in the 70s just because she had nothing better to do on a rainy Saturday, my former boss was lucky no one had stripped him of his title and paycheck yet, and it took a hell of a lot of guts for a woman to speak out against a Boss Behaving Badly in a work world that amounted to nothing more than an old boys’ club.
I know it’s not the early 90s anymore (though we do still have a Bush “running” the country). Now you can’t read or watch the news for a week without hearing about some discrimination suit or other. Today’s columnists and talking heads seem to love “Women are the new men!” equality-in-the-office stories as much as feminist zines and bloggers do. And even if motivated as much by lawsuit phobia as by social awareness, workplaces are more egalitarian than ever.
But still… There are people who will never believe Anita Hill and all the Anita Hills we have yet to hear from. There’s also this: The price of speaking out against harassment can be quite hefty, at times costing accusers their jobs, reputations, careers, and even mental health. When I was writing The Anti 9-to-5 Guide, a few women I interviewed — successful, ambitious, powerful, well-paid women — said they’d been sexually harassed at work. Not in a “Holy crap, I think I might need to hire a bodyguard” way. But in a “Don’t expect to succeed in this company because, after all, you’re just a chick,” or a “You only got the promotion because you have a hot ass” way. In every case, the women told me they didn’t want to speak up and risk jeopardizing their job. Besides, they “knew it was a losing battle.”
More disturbing, I recently interviewed a couple of career consultants for an article on women’s workplace issues and was told that women should not file a sexual harassment complaint at work, unless they are fully prepared to sacrifice their job and possibly their career. (Evidently retaliation from lawsuit-skittish employers is alive and well.) One consultant I interviewed even went so far as to say, “Why should you have to put your job on the line for some jerk who’s just going to abuse his power at the next company he lands at anyway?”
Maybe it’s easy for me to say I’d risk my job, career, and mortgage to stop some boneheaded manager from acting like a Neanderthal because I work for myself. Maybe my blood wouldn’t be so quick to boil if I was a minimum-wage worker with a couple of kids to feed and couldn’t afford to lose my job no matter what. I’m not sure. But I know that if it weren’t for Anita Hill, countless women like me might not be asking themselves these questions at all.
Entry Filed under: Glass ceiling