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Jane Ahlin, Published July 14 2012

Ahlin: It’s a tale of 2012 version of ‘chasing around desk’

Some months before my mother’s death, one of her sisters told me that in her first job, my mother – the oldest of five children – sent money home each month that allowed the family to get a first telephone and first electric refrigerator. Also, the other sister in the family was able to attend college because she could live with my mother in the city.

Those were things I’d never been told before but wasn’t all that surprised to hear. What my aunt said next, however, did surprise me. Evidently, the first job my mother had was far from pleasant because her boss was always trying to get his hands on her, in my aunt’s words, “chasing her around the desk.”

When I asked my mother about it, she said that the women she worked with made a pact. If the boss closed the door when she was called into his office to take dictation, within a few minutes another woman would find a reason to poke her head in the door to ask a question and then leave the door open. Usually, that kept him in line. (Long before she worked for him, the boss “had a reputation for that sort of thing,” my mother said.)

I asked her why she didn’t complain or just quit. “If I’d complained, I would have been fired.” She shrugged. “And you have to remember it was the Depression. Nobody quit a job without already having another job nailed down. I just kept applying for other jobs until I finally got one.”

My mother’s experience that now dates back more than 70 years came to mind when I read The Forum article about the judge who wanted to have an affair with a court reporter and the troubles of the same court reporter as she made clear again and again that she wasn’t interested. Indeed, after reading the disillusioning article, it’s probably good to pause for a moment to consider what has and has not changed for women in subordinate positions over lo, so many, many years. Suffice it to say, there’s good news and not so good news.

Start with the good news. What was referred to in the workplace in my mother’s day as “skirt chasing” or “chasing around the desk” (more crudely referred to as “copping a feel” or “hitting on” by the time I was a young adult) now comes under the legal rubric of sexual harassment. An employee subjected to harassment has legal recourse.

Unfortunately, what hasn’t changed is that a subordinate must think long and hard about making accusations because bringing the offensive behavior of a supervisor to light also brings unwelcome attention to her. Suddenly, she’s set apart. With evidence on her side, she keeps her job; however, her working relationship with other supervisors and even with peers may forever be changed.

As a society, we’d like to think our collective attitude toward those who report sexual harassment has been transformed, that unlike the days of old, or even the days of a few decades ago (think Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill), our society today “gets it.” And yet, the very first thing mentioned in any sexual harassment case involving a prominent person is still the credibility of the accuser. In fact, our culture continues to tilt in favor of that boss or congressman or judge who behaves inappropriately, a man of status who later insists he was misunderstood or is so sorry for his actions (which, naturally, in no way reflect his true character), as if society is better served by upholding the good name of the prominent person accused rather than worrying about the effect of the experience on the average person doing the accusing.

More troubling, there’s a strong undercurrent that women who take legal action are crybabies (put on your big-girl pants and deal with it) or plain old gold-diggers. The truth is quite the opposite. Most women who experience harassment do everything they can to change the situation before resorting to an official complaint.

In the case of the judge and the court reporter, no surprise the court reporter is disinclined to legal action and no surprise the court investigators decided that the judge “ ‘did not recognize the effect of his organizational status’ on the woman.”

In 2012, that’s status quo.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.