Harassed women finally receive their day in court

MIKE LITTWIN

November 10, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

Sandra Day O'Connor, a woman, wrote the opinion. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also a woman, had led the questioning of the lawyers and offered a concurring opinion.

And the Supreme Court ruling yesterday was unanimous, meaning that even Clarence "Can o' Coke" Thomas joined in.

Yes, it's a new day.

On this new day, the Supreme Court set a new, and more lenient, standard for determining sexual harassment in the workplace. The court said, in effect, that women should not have to put up with scummy male bosses.

Senator Packwood, call your service.

O'Connor said that employees (yes, of course, males can be sexually harassed, too) were not required to show they had suffered psychological injury in order to win damages. Instead, the employee had to prove only that discrimination had caused a "hostile or abusive" environment.

In other words, a woman doesn't have to stand around and pretend to smile when the boss says he's got a quarter in his front pocket and could she reach in (wink, wink) and retrieve it for him. This is exactly what Teresa Harris said happened to her when she worked for Forklift Systems Inc. Harris alleged that Charles Hardy, the company's president, often offered up such witticisms for her benefit.

According to Harris, he suggested they "go to the Holiday Inn to negotiate your raise."

Or he'd drop objects in front of women employees so they would stoop down to pick them up. Whereupon Hardy would comment on their clothing.

In one case, Harris said Hardy suggested to her that she shouldn't wear a bikini because her rear end was "so big, if you did there would be an eclipse and nobody would get any sun."

In front of other employees, he would chime in with "You're a woman. What do you know?"

And on and on. And on.

These are jokes of a kind, I guess. That's what Hardy said they were, the kind of semi-flirtatious interplay that has defined the male-female relationship through the ages.

And two lower courts seemed to agree, ruling that Hardy's behavior did not meet the legal standard for sexual harassment. One judge, a man, said Hardy's actions "cannot be classified as much more than annoying and insensitive."

The point was, the judge said, that Harris was tough enough to take this behavior without crumbling. Therefore, she had to tolerate it. If she had suffered, say, a nervous breakdown, she might have had a case.

As it happened, Harris didn't fall apart, but she did quit her job as a rental agent. When she quit -- it has been six years now -- she sued. And when her suit finally made it to the Supreme Court, she found nine justices, led by two women, who understood.

A new day, all right.

But even in this new day, not everyone gets it. As an example, you're starting to see now some sympathy for the plight of serial kisser Bob Packwood.

It is being pointed out that he didn't offer women promotions in return for sex or demotions if sex was refused. It is being pointed out that he is a geek who simply tried to slip his tongue into women's mouths in the elevator or by the water cooler.

I wonder how his defenders, mostly men, would feel if Packwood tried to slip his tongue into their mouths. How offensive would they find it? How hostile would they find the environment? How more or less harmless would they find him?

The Supreme Court ruling says the boss doesn't have to be a monster to be a sexual harasser. He doesn't have to threaten anyone. He doesn't have to physically abuse anyone.

In Ginsburg's view, all workers have to show is that the sexual harassment "made it more difficult to do the job."

Ginsburg, of course, became known first as a lawyer pleading women's-rights cases. It must be a slightly different workplace environment on the court when she's sitting in, as is O'Connor, with the old men who used have the robes all to themselves.

Can you picture some justice arguing with Ginsburg that Hardy was just kidding around?

Me either.

In the wake of this ruling, some supervisors will complain that the rules are changing too fast. I just hope none of them is psychologically injured trying to keep up.

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