Whenever Joan Kennedy Taylor would announce to friends she was working on a book on sexual harassment, several people in the room would gravitate in her direction.
“It’s the language at the office I can’t stand,” one woman told Mrs. Taylor, the national coordinator of the Association of Libertarian Feminists.
“Stockbrokers are the worst,” another said.
As she researched the topic further, the author found that, despite several Supreme Court rulings on the matter, sexual harassment remains as ill-defined now as it’s ever been. Even the mentioning of a risque episode of the sitcom “Seinfeld” by an executive to a subordinate resulted in a 1993 multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Miller Brewing Co. in Milwaukee.
Mrs. Taylor began tracking what happened when people mostly women sued.
Those who were lucky enough to get a lawyer found that much of the settlement, if they got one, went toward legal fees. Others, who like Paula Jones wanted an apology more than money, often went begging for both. Many legal actions dragged on for years, sending plaintiffs into costly therapy or disability while they awaited justice.
The courts were not of much help. Some employers got hit with crippling penalties, while others guilty of the same infractions went scot-free.
Some women simply misread male intentions, she says. What a woman sees as harassment is sometimes disorganization, ignorance, attraction or bad communication. Women are afraid to stand up for themselves. Men don’t take hints. And so on.
For instance, she writes in her new book, “What to do When You Don’t Want to Call the Cops,” if a man calls a woman “honey” in public, “One might consider calling him dearie’ or cutie-pie.’ ”
She continues, “It’s been my experience that many men call women dear’ or darling’ because they haven’t bothered to remember their names. It could be possible in such a case to retort sweetly, If you’ve forgotten, I’m Angela, Richard.’ ”
Groan at the bad and tasteless jokes, she advises female readers, and indicate displeasure in terms no man can miss. She tells of one woman whose male co-worker mooed at her to tease her about her weight. The woman bought a cowbell and hung it around her tormentor’s neck.
She says women can eliminate the problem, not by lawsuits, but by outwitting their opposition.
First, establish your competence, she says, especially when entering an all-male workplace. Make a real effort to establish a network quickly. Break up the existing male solidarity network by actively cultivating men who want to see women treated fairly. Some of a woman’s strongest allies, she says, may be family men with working daughters.
Next, familiarize yourself with the company’s sexual-harassment resolution process and do not hesitate to use it. Many court cases, she says, have been lost because the woman did not follow through on every available complaint procedure.
If you cannot personally confront your harasser, write a letter to him instead, hand carry it to his desk and make sure he reads it. Keep copies for yourself and upper management. Some incidents are not worth a formal complaint, but they nevertheless rankle. In such cases, she says, protest immediately by speaking face-to-face with the harasser.
During a lecture last week at the libertarian Cato Institute, Mrs. Taylor said women can help themselves and each other through “common-sense” protests that don’t take offense at men who are simply acting like men.
Much male bonding, she said, “emphasizes maleness, using swear words constantly, joking, even dirty jokes; teasing, harassing newcomers. These make men feel at one, happy, enjoying themselves in the workplace. A woman comes into the situation and is treated the same way and feels it is directed at her.
“Men, who have previously dealt with women only as family or as love objects, don’t know how to deal with an incoming woman: as a colleague or as a woman, that is, a sex object. It’s up to women, in my opinion, since they are going into new territory, to understand what is going on.”
But Deborah Katz-Pueschel, the plaintiff in the landmark 1983 Katz vs. Dole sexual-harassment suit, said deflecting harassment is not all that easy. Mrs. Pueschel, who was one of three women working as an air-traffic controller at the Federal Aviation Administration’s center in Leesburg, Va., said men on the job would vilify her through vile language.
The case, which was decided in her favor, was the first court ruling that said crude and sexually derogatory language alone could be grounds for a case.
Mrs. Pueschel says she confronted her harasser over a three-year period with no results.
“I had meetings with him, his union and his supervisors,” she says. “You can’t get this resolved. And in my case, all the supervisors involved were either promoted or rewarded when they retired.”
Despite winning her case, Mrs. Pueschel was reassigned back to the same office where she had experienced all the problems. She continued to be harassed until 1994, when her doctors prevailed on her to leave because of stress-related medical problems.
The FAA later ordered Mrs. Pueschel back to work and, when she refused to return to Leesburg, fired her. Mrs. Pueschel has spent $300,000 her life savings on lawsuits and received $150,000 back in judgments. Workers in the private sector can sue their employers for large amounts, she said, but in the federal sector, plaintiffs are limited to $300,000 in compensatory damages, which is taxable.
“People’s last recourse is to go to court, and you don’t even get justice there,” she says. “In essence, I won nothing.”
It’s easier to win lawsuits if you are obviously young and attractive, she added, suggesting that older women get jeered at by federal judges who doubt anyone would harass them.
But even the young and attractive fail at getting their stories believed, Mrs. Taylor said.
“It’s very possible that Anita Hill couldn’t speak up; that she had no encouragement from anybody to speak up and, psychologically, she didn’t know how,” the author said of the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice-to-be Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. “My contention is that if there are many women out there in the same position, we should be helping them to communicate.
“We should not be telling them that they have to sit and take it until they can’t bear it anymore and then have some kind of recourse to the law, which is extremely onerous and rarely satisfactory.”