The liberal media is all aflame as it torches Republican presidential contender Herman Cain over allegations he engaged in sexual harassment while he headed the National Restaurant Association (NRA).
Cain evidently made some sort of comment – not a sexual one, just saying an NRA employee was a short as Cain’s wife – which the NRA employee found “offensive.” She and another NRA employee sued, or threatened to sue the NRA for sexual harassment, and the NRA settled, apparently because it was cheaper to throw a few bucks at the plaintiffs rather than pay hefty legal fees to defend itself. The settlement was confidential so few details are available.
Meanwhile, though, the media conflagration isn’t doing either women or men any favors. Oversensitivity in the workplace to the sexual harassment hype has potentially dire consequences for women who want to compete for professional advancement on equal footing with men – and for the men frivolously accused of sexual harassment as well.
Let me tell you what I personally saw at the equal rights revolution in the workplace.
A number of years ago, I was a senior associate at a large law firm in Chicago and nearing consideration for advancement to the firm’s partnership ranks – I was “up for partner,” as it was said. Like most firms, there was an “up-or-out” policy, so this was serious business. And then two things happened.
First, the firm decided all lawyers needed “sensitivity training” about sexual harassment. The training was done by lawyers in the employment law department, who did this all the time for our corporate clients.
Three or four employment lawyers sat in a row at a table upfront in the conference room. The department head went first. I remember two subjects he covered.
No female lawyers should ever travel on business with a male lawyer, he said. Now this was a huge problem for me and other young female litigators. We were told we wouldn’t make partner unless we did a superior job in significant litigation cases. Our litigation practice was nationwide, so we traveled all the time with lawyers of the opposite sex. This was in the early days, and the partners in charge of significant litigation were exclusively male. If co-ed business trips were banned, women lawyers were doomed to be “out,” not “up.” The firm never formally banned co-ed travel – which was just as well, because most of the firm’s lawyers had decided they’d ignore such a ban if it came to that.
Then, the employment lawyer went on to say, no co-ed touching. Don’t touch someone on the back. Or the arm. No touching, no touching, no touching. He hammered away on that point until we almost couldn’t wait to touch one another, even if the thought had never crossed our minds before. (Just kidding.)
But sure enough, the sexual harassment specialist and head of the firm’s employment law practice finished with his “no touching” lecture. He then immediately turned to the female employment lawyer sitting next to him, touched her on her forearm, and said, “Katie, you take our training lecture from here.”
Well, of course, the lawyers in the room went up for grabs. It was one of those ROTFLMAO moments. “No touching, Joe,” we repeated back at him in unison. “No touching, no touching, no touching.”
But, still, the whole subject of sexual harassment made the men in the firm pretty nervous.
Around the same time, the firm scheduled a continuing legal education session on a Saturday afternoon. The subject was negotiating contracts. It lasted hours and it was really boring.
After it ended – finally – four of us went for a brew at a local establishment. It was 4 p.m. on a Saturday. We were sitting in a grumpy row at the bar – me and three young male partners – all complaining about how boring the day was, except one guy who said he thought it was great. “The next session should be about negotiating lawsuit settlements,” he said. You know the type.
“Nah,” another guy said. “The next session should be about sex crimes.”
And I watched while three males swiveled in unison to stare at me with horrified expressions on their faces. “We’re toast,” I could hear them thinking. “She’s gonna go off on us.” (I was going to say their heads turned toward me in unison, but someone might get offended.)
As for me, my life was flashing before my eyes. I mean, I thought the “sex crimes” comment was pretty funny. But the “sex-crimes” guy was on the partner-making committee. He specialized in litigation, and so did I and I worked on several cases with him. So his recommendation – thumbs up or thumbs down – controlled my future at the firm. If any.
But more than that, I knew him pretty well, and he was an entirely decent person. We had a great working relationship, and I learned a lot from him. We had even traveled together without incident. I liked him, and I knew and liked his family as well.
So I felt kind of bad that he and the two other guys were scared shitless over the possibility I’d be offended. Their reaction wasn’t silly, though. Technically, the “sex crimes” comment amounted to sexual harassment under federal law, though it never crossed my mind to make a federal case out of it.
Normally, I would have just laughed it off. But it was such a serious moment, and the guys were so terrified, I was knocking myself out trying to think of a funny response.
“Nah,” he’d said. “The next session should be about sex crimes.”
So: “Nah,” I said. “The next session should be about negotiating sex crimes.”
Now, it wasn’t really that funny, of course. But it was the best I could do on a moment’s notice. And the three guys were LOL, almost falling off their bar stools. A nervous reaction, undoubtedly. They then sighed in relief. (Actually, now that I think about it, I could have been sued for sexual harassment over that comment.)
I don’t mean to make light of real, honest-to-God sexual harassment. It’s not funny. There was one sexual harassment story making the rounds in Chicago around that time about another firm. If true, the allegations were shocking and legal action would have been well warranted.
But overreaction – getting one’s knickers all in a twist – over minor incidents is harmful to other women. Frankly, I think women should “man up” – as Sarah Palin would say – and tell men who make offensive comments to cut it out, in no uncertain terms. As long as women prefer to get all weepy and “offended” and emotional and go tattle to Human Resources about some stray comment their jerk boss made, women will have a difficult time gaining full acceptance in the work place by all good men. The good men are scared, and they are right to be scared.
Just ask Herman Cain.
By the way … I made partner.