Harassment headlines spotlight change - and the lack of it

By Adam Geller
AP National Writer

The accusations - of an Uber manager propositioning an engineer via instant message on her first day in his department, of the top-rated host at Fox News calling female co-workers to talk about sex - are so lurid they sound like outliers.

But years after companies and courts began insisting sexual harassment has no place on the job, it continues to fester - particularly when employers tolerate it, experts say.

While the allegations are unproven, reports that Fox, Uber and other organizations may have allowed such treatment to go unchecked, push back against assumptions that sexual harassment has diminished, even as it has been labeled unacceptable.

The effort to change workplace dynamics "feels like it's been going on a long time, but 30 years in the history of male-female relationships is less than the blink of an eye," said Louise Fitzgerald, a psychologist who in the 1980s developed a survey long used by the U.S. military and other employers to measure their workers' specific experiences of sexual harassment.

"We keep having to rediscover this over and over again, and every time we're shocked."

Last year, Fox News' CEO Roger Ailes resigned amid allegations that he pressured female employees to have sex. Now, the company and top-rated host Bill O'Reilly are under fire for paying women to drop suits accusing him of much the same.

In February, a former Uber employee posted a detailed account accusing the company of ignoring complaints by her and other women of managers pressuring them for sex. CEO Travis Kalanick issued a statement declaring there was "no place for this kind of behavior" in the company, then soon after came under scrutiny for a report he took employees to a Korean escort bar.

But they are hardly alone.

More than 200 workers at the company that owns the Kay and Jared jewelry chains claimed in declarations filed in private arbitration that managers groped subordinates and pushed them to have sex in exchange for job opportunities. A class action, certified to cover all 69,000 women employed at the company from 2004 to the present, alleges discrimination against women in pay and promotions.

The company says the accusations are unfounded.

"We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind," the chairman of Signet Jewelers Limited, Todd Stitzer, said in a statement last month announcing the formation of committee of directors to conduct a review of company policies.

The Marine Corps is trying to clamp down on private Facebook groups set up by male current and former servicemen, who collected and shared nude photos of their female colleagues.

Sexual harassment has always been most common in workplaces with relatively few women compared to men, researchers say, particularly in fields where jobs themselves are considered masculine. Industries where top performers bring in big dollars will sometimes overlook their behavior.

But tolerance by top managers is the single biggest factor.

"Corporate culture matters," said Emily Martin of the National Women's Law Center, an advocacy group. "That idea that this is how we do things here is really quite powerful. It effects what both supervisors and supervisees understand as normal behavior."

It's hard to know how prevalent sexual harassment is in workplaces, but it is widespread, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force concluded in a report last year.

Statistics kept by the Department of Defense show that more than 6,000 sexual assaults were reported in the service branches in 2015, a slight decline from the previous year, but more than twice the figure recorded a decade ago.

That is despite more than three decades of attempts to identify sexual harassment and weed it out of U.S. workplaces.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that sexual harassment is a violation of civil rights, in a case pitting a bank teller against a Washington, D.C., bank and the boss she said coerced her into sex.

The Navy was enveloped in scandal over accusations that aviators assaulted dozens of female colleagues at their Tailhook Association gathering in Las Vegas in 1991. That same year, government lawyer Anita Hill testified that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had graphically talked to her about sex during work; Thomas vehemently denied it. A few years later, women who had worked at broker Smith Barney filed a lawsuit alleging harassment by male colleagues, some of whom retreated to a raucous party chamber, the Boom Boom Room, inside a branch office.

The attention fueled a sharp rise in complaints of sexual harassment, and saw many companies mandate behavioral changes by employees and pledge to treat women more fairly. But longtime observers are skeptical about how much change has really occurred.

"There's a big difference between what companies say and what they do," said Susan Antilla, whose book "Tales from the Boom Boom Room" chronicled sexual harassment at Wall Street firms in the 1990s and the legal battles to curb it. She says talk of diversity initiatives and employee training ring hollow.

"I think that companies hide behind these things," she said.

Some things have changed.

Many companies now require employees to sign agreements not to sue if subjected to harassment, and to instead pursue a remedy in private arbitration. That such complaints are kept out of the public eye may contribute to an impression that fewer allegations are being made.

The rise of social networking has created new means of intimidating and belittling fellow workers. At the same time, cellphones that record audio and video, and computers that easily capture screenshots of messages give victims of harassment a way to seize on proof that could force an employer to act.

"The shocking thing is that after decades of sexual harassment being illegal, such dazzlingly open sexual harassment continues to emerge in both companies and the Marines, and in other arenas," said Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California. "The thing that's changed is that once these allegations become public, they become a very public embarrassment." And that can rapidly have an impact on a company's finances.

That is evident in the announcements by more than a dozen companies that were pulling their advertising from O'Reilly's show on Fox.

Fitzgerald, the researcher, said it's hard to know whether there is more or less sexual harassment than a generation ago. But the newest headlines, with accusations of executives who knew of harassment and took little action, remind her of why it persists.

"So the men learn it's OK and the women learn ... that it's part of the culture and climate," Fitzgerald said. "It explains that whole thing of: Does this company take this seriously? Obviously, culture is something that starts at the very, very top."

Published: Wed, Apr 12, 2017