Beyond the locker room: when sex bias shuts women out

Linda Cotton

October 12, 1990|By Linda Cotton

WHEN YOU HEAR "sexual harassment," what comes to mind? Feminists pushing their agenda again? Liberal zealots complaining about the system? Crazies plotting to undermine traditional American values and institutions?

So maybe this isn't exactly the framework in which you think about macho stuff like the Naval Academy. But that's precisely the charge of a committee of political and business leaders that looked into practices at the academy after a female middie was handcuffed to a urinal and harassed last December while fellow midshipmen took pictures.

The committee concluded that this was not just another incident of good, old-fashioned Navy rough-housing after all. This was sexual harassment. And it is widespread at the institution.

Its report argues what most of us already know, but what the officials keep forgetting: that merely being committed in principle to equal opportunity is not enough. You have to do something substantive.

It is a lesson the nation reluctantly is learning in regard to racism, but recognition of sexism lags far behind.

When Dodgers executive Al Campanis, for example, announced that blacks weren't good management material because they didn't have "the necessities," he was summarily fired. When CBS sportscaster Jimmy the Greek made the now-infamous comment that black athletic prowess was a result of breeding during plantation days, he lost his job.

But when Gwen Dreyer was chained up and taunted, leaders at the Naval Academy sighed with a hearty boys-will-be-boys attitude, winked at the midshipmen who had perpetrated the scheme and sent them letters of reprimand. Dreyer, uncomfortable among the classmates who had bound and harassed her, left the school.

Similarly, when Boston Herald sportswriter Lisa Olson went into the New England Patriots locker room recently to do the standard post-game interviews, Zeke Mowatt approached the reporter, dangled his penis in her face and dared her to touch it while other players jeered.

The team owner, Victor Kiam, ho-hummed. He "couldn't get excited" about the incident, he said; it was merely a "flyspeck in the ocean." I doubt very seriously whether Olson, who must do such interviews to perform her job competently, sees it that way.

Kiam, aka the razor king, later apologized. But this can be chalked up more to the invisible hand of Adam Smith than to personal enlightenment. Kiam owns the Remington company; Christmas is coming and women spend an awful lot of money on his products. In fact, only five days after the incident, and the apology, Kiam confessed to a reporter: "I can't disagree with the players' actions."

In the end, Mowatt was fined $2,000 -- a punishment not unlike the perfunctory letter of reprimand sent to the midshipmen. The Patriot, who makes $630,000 a year; won't exactly feel the pinch.

Such slaps on the wrist are a slap in the face to women who want the chance to excel but who are headed off too often by the idea that they are out of their element when they step beyond the kitchen and the bedroom.

In certain circles -- where debate over equal opportunity focuses mostly on how uncomfortble men are with it -- people don't see it this way. They say that there are simply some places women don't belong. But by arguing that, they imply that there are some places -- and roles -- where they do.

Tigers pitcher Jack Morris was pretty clear about this. When a female sportswriter entered the clubhouse last summer, he barked: "I don't talk to people when I'm naked [though he wasn't], especially women, unless they're on top of me or I'm on top of them."

It's not always that blatant. Edward Derwinski, the first secretary of the new Department of Veterans Affairs, has taken another tack. He refuses to call the women who work for him by their proper names. Instead, he calls them cutesy diminutive nicknames he makes up.

Assistant Mary Jo Munnelly is "Little Miss Coffee Maker;" operations and policy staff members Kathrene Hansen and Camille Barry are "Little Miss Muffet" and "Zsa Zsa." Women Derwinski doesn't know are merely addressed as "Angel" -- as in, "Sit down, Angel, until Little Miss Coffee Maker and Zsa Zsa arrive."

The trouble with this kind of locker-room mentality is not so much that it's insulting, which is obvious -- but that it is so insidious. It is hard enough for women to get respect and credibility in the professional world without also having to bore through almost impenetrable barriers of sexism.

New policies that crack down on harassment can't change attitudes, I know, but they can certainly change behaviors. It's long past time for such a change.

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