Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Never Too Educated to Be Sexually Harassed!

I curse like a sailor. This is a bad habit that I picked up in college.  At the end of college, I said, I will not curse in Law School, because I want to be more professional.  But, in Law School, people cursed like sailors as well--even the professors.  So, upon graduation, I decided I would not curse during my clerkship.     But Judge Bitch cursed in chambers all of the time.  So, I slid back into my old ways.  However, I promised myself that I would stop when I began the practice of the law. You guessed it--the most unprofessional environment ever was the first small firm that I worked for in New York City.  So, I stopped trying.
But it wasn't the cursing that got under my skin--it was the overall lack of professionalism and, mostly, the sexual harassment.  Well, that's an overstatement.  I was an adult and I could handle it, but I was astounded at the things that came out of my bosses' mouth.

"Wear a low cut shirt to court tomorrow."
"Sleep with the judge if you have to."
"Did anyone see my dental floss?  Oh, it's between Molly's butt cheeks today--nice thong, Molly!"
"You don't have to sleep with him, but he should think it might happen."
"Yah, the folder is in that drawer... don't squat, bend over."

It was a sexually charged environment. There was even talk of not allowing flats as part of the dress code.  It was obvious to everyone that the "girls" in the office were hired based on looks and the boss would inevitably make a pass at every girl in the office.  Whether or not they were welcome advances is another story.  Couple the sexual harassment with the racism and homophobia and it was a bit uncomfortable to work there.

So, Slate published this "Dear Prudence" letter about a similar office experience:
Dear Prudence,
I am a female law student who is employed for the summer (and potentially for the school year) at a small firm that I'm really enjoying. The law office shares a floor of an office building with a bigger law firm, and my cubicle is "on the border." All of the attorneys at both firms are male, but at the other firm, the men are far from politically correct. I have two issues: First, one of the attorneys, "Jerry," often makes comments to me about my appearance. These range from annoying but harmless ("Nice tan") to creepy ("I like that skirt," in a lecherous tone). I have tried to ignore him or subtly indicate his comments aren't welcome, but neither approach has worked. I'm tempted to speak to one of my firm's partners, but I fear it would make me look like a little girl running to a man to fight my battles. I'm also considering documenting all his comments until I have enough for a sexual harassment suit so I can make his firm pay for the legal education I used to nail it. Second, I overhear a lot of conversations I find highly offensive. The men are fond of using homosexuality-based insults, calling one another or opponents "fag" and "homo." The work environment is becoming so unpleasant that I wonder how long I can stand it. What should I do?
—Livid but Lost Law Student
Dear Livid,
I hope you don't view your law degree as a carte blanche to take to court everyone who makes you uncomfortable. If you tell a judge that getting the compliment "I like that skirt" made you unable to discharge your own legal duties, the conclusion may be that you need to find another line of work, not that the firm of Blowhard, Homophobe & Creep owes you a tuition check. The law firm you're working for likely won't be impressed with your enterprising spirit if they find out you've filed suit against the guys next door. Let's deal with Jerry. As you've discovered, being subtle isn't working. I assume your legal education is teaching you to state your position plainly, so do so. Next time Jerry comes over, tell him, "Jerry, I'd appreciate it if you would cease remarking on my appearance. I find your comments disruptive and your tone hostile. I hope you understand what I'm saying and that I won't have to say it again. Thanks." Only if he escalates should you take it to one of your partners, explaining that you've tried to deal with him yourself. As for the frat boys next door—get a sound-blocking headset if you must. Yes, their comments are repugnant, but you don't want to be the Carrie Nation of your floor. Let's hope this is resolved one day when a client of the firm who doesn't share their sensibilities overhears the office banter.
—Prudie
Wow.  I was a little shocked at her advice.  She was less than understanding.  But Above the Law was also heartless about this poor girl's plight:
This discussion raises a larger question: Do female lawyers and law students need to get thicker skins?
If workplace complaints from women lawyers focus these days on uncouth remarks by men, perhaps it’s because the worst of sexism is in the past. The days when Sandra Day O’Connor couldn’t find a job as a lawyer but only as a legal secretary, despite graduating near the top of her class at Stanford Law School, are ancient history. Now women with credentials like O’Connor’s are eagerly courted by the nation’s top law firms. Women make partner with regularity in Biglaw, and many have risen to become managing partner.
...  Let’s face it: sex is funny. And if you’re going to take human sexuality off the table entirely as a topic of conversation, offices are going to become a lot less fun.
So, because Elena Kagan was appointed to SCOTUS, a young woman cannot be sexually harassed?  When I was young, in college, I felt that men behaiving badly was justified in their mind because I was an undereducated underling.  But, as a woman, I suppose we have to deal with this, even as we crack the ceiling and become CEOs and Supreme Court Justices?  Epic FAIL, ATL and Prudie.  When will women be treated humanely?  Forget about being equal.  Would you want someone to speak to your daughter, mother or wife this way?

8 comments:

  1. I think with the recession, courts are less willing to find for plaintiffs in harassment cases. Or maybe it's always been the gutter for our prestttigious profession and it has nothing to do with that.

    I should have seen the warning signs while in law school. I came from a science background in undergrad, the type of people in science is completely different from law. Law students were assholes, and of course, they went on to graduate to be asshole lawyers. I have met maybe 2 lawyers that weren't assholes most of the time, but they still probably aren't the greatest of people either.

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  2. Not to blame the victim, but if you take a job where you know the only reason that they hired you was for your looks, isn't part of the blame on you? (Not all, just part)

    Also, this leads me to another question. How do unemployed JD females feel when they see classmates with less stellar grades but better "assets" land jobs? Does it frustrate them? I imagine it would. To have worked hard for 3 years, only to watch someone who breezed by land something before them. It's gotta sting. Luckily those places that can afford to hire solely based on looks are usually not very prestigious places in the first place. Still, a job (especially in this economy) is a job.

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  3. If she doesn't create a record of attempting to bring the disparaging comments and inappropriate behavior, she will have a harder time winning any potential lawsuit. but then if she does complain, she will likely get ostracized to the point of getting the boot, whereupon the unemployed hordes will clamor for the job. In this economy, I'm sure there are law clerks and newly minted debt lemmings who would wear a hooters girl outfit to work for a paycheck and insurance. it's a shitty profession alright.

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  4. why did you stop blogging???

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  5. I have more stories of s/h in the profession than I can count, and not a single one of the targets ever did anything about it. We're all afraid of being disbelieved and/or blackballed. It starts early too -- there's a dude in a prominent position at the law school where I work who allegedly has harassed several women who work there. (I am one of them, but because I outrank him, technically it's not really s/h.) One of them finally made a formal complaint on her way out the door. He's still held up as the golden boy and it's clear that nothing will ever happen to him. Nice message for our lady law students, no?

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  6. I knew of an OLD (not older, OLD) professor who has worked at my alma mater forever. He knows that he will never get fired unless he does something drastic like murder someone in the classroom in front of hundreds of other people. All the students know about his legendary antics touching female students and inviting them to sit on his lap. The administration ignores all of the stories as long as he does his "job" and writes his law articles and publishes his textbooks. That's all they care about.

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  7. Oh, gee. You've pinpointed yet another reason why I'd never work in a firm. I'm a natural redhead; by nature, we're all completely insane. I'm also a feminist (though not a man-hater or even bi-curious).

    No one in a position of authority has EVER sexually harassed me. Even a former boss who sexually harassed actresses & a former co-worker NEVER harassed me. I tend to inspire fear in folk; I've also had to deal w/assholes cat-calling at me for just walking down the street.

    I'll happily threaten to cut off someone's man parts & most people think I'd do it in a second. I did tell one guy who was bothering me when I was walking home one day that my spouse would cut his balls off just for speaking to me (and he likely would). I'd also go on a rampage & do the same or worse to others who did nothing. Seems most people don't wish to test that one.

    I just couldn't work someplace condoning that shit; it's unethical & not outing people for that is giving tacit approval to their actions + allowing others to be victimized. Don't care to have that on my conscience, thanks. I'm not even touching the whole lack of a serious business environment angle.

    And if I didn't get to someone on that, others I know certainly would. It's better that I don't encounter that kind of thing so no one has to deal w/the consequences.

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  8. So, because Film Co. Lawyer has never been sexually harassed (probably in denial is the reality), that means it's somehow a deficiency on the part the women who have been sexually harassed. How helpful! They were just doing it wrong.

    And P.S., anyone who defensively and seriously states that they're not a "man-hater" when they identify as a feminist is not a feminist. Ha!

    Thanks again for the helpful comment, otherworldly pseudo-feminist!

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