It’s fitting that Bill O’Reilly’s big mouth finally did him in. Fox News and its owners, the Murdochs, did the right thing getting rid of him last week after numerous allegations of sexual harassment (which he denies) and $13 million in payouts to women who said they were sexually bullied and harassed by the host.
If working women are celebrating this news, we are celebrating warily … and wearily. Warily because even though a number of women had the guts to call out a major corporation, we know this does not mark the end of such behavior. And wearily because: Really? Still? In 2017 some men still think it’s OK to be sexual bullies?
And it’s not just still happening, but seems to be ramping up. Recent high-profile hall of shamers include former Fox chief Roger Ailes, ex-Philadelphia Parking Authority head Vince Fenerty, and untold numbers of porn-swapping Pennsylvania officials and judges.
How are we supposed to think about this, especially at a time when we had the chance to elect a woman president but instead elected a man who likes to grab women’s private parts?
Harassment is not one thing, of course, but lives across a wide spectrum, starting with the subtle or not-so-subtle comments about looks that might be considered harmless but aren’t, to the more aggressive and threatening behavior of someone like Fenerty, who quit the PPA right before being fired over allegations he hounded at least one woman executive with overt displays of unwanted affection and attention. According to reports, O’Reilly made suggestive and lewd comments about the bodies of female colleagues and threatened to ruin their lives if they turned down his advances. In a way, these knuckleheads did their victims a favor because the explicit and out-of-control stuff at least can be litigated. (Though it’s small comfort, especially given the big payouts that O’Reilly, Fenerty, and others got for their fall from grace.)
It’s the subtler, day-to-day stuff that’s harder to pinpoint and combat.
Show me a woman who has achieved success in the workplace, especially one over 40, and I’ll show you a woman who has encountered at least one instance of being objectified, subject to comments from colleagues or superiors about her looks, her desirability, her attraction as a sex partner — comments that have made her uncomfortable, demeaned, or compromised. Sadly, many women I know who came of age in the 20th century think that a little bit of this behavior comes with the territory, the price of admission to workplaces traditionally dominated by men. Although boors are found in every type and size of company.
I once worked for a supposedly progressive newspaper whose male publisher routinely dropped observations about females and their level of attractiveness into performance reviews, suggesting that raises would be larger if the woman he was reviewing was prettier or thinner. Those of us subjected to this lout were young, afraid of calling the boss on this behavior, and mostly, we were just relieved to be getting any raise. This may sound harmless, but consider how damaging this early training is in connecting one’s worth on the job to being pretty or compliant or desirable. It’s corrosive and vile.
And then there are the more subtle slings and arrows of navigating the workplace — and the world — that is still uncomfortable with women in control: The paucity of female board members and chief executives at major corporations. The gender disparities in salaries for the same jobs. The long slog up the ladder that less qualified male counterparts seem to zoom up with ease. And the stunning lack of diversity in the lawmaking bodies that make the laws that impact all of us.
This isn’t bad enough, but we have to witness disgusting predatory behavior by men like O’Reilly, too?
Some might argue that the overtly harassing behavior is a symptom of the progress women have made; if women were not such a formidable force in the workplace, these men would not feel threatened enough to want to exert their power in such nasty ways. Others argue that harassment cases like O’Reilly’s are just outbreaks of the sexual tension between men and women that will never go away. And still others say that it’s a generational thing: Younger women don’t have the same experience as more mature women who came up when bad behavior was more tolerated.
I have hope that this last argument — that young women aren’t as subject to the same kind of demeaning and degrading behavior by male colleagues — is true. I’d like to hear what you have to say, especially if you’re a woman under 40. Do you ever feel uncomfortable at work because of sexually implicit or explicit behavior from male colleagues or bosses? How prevalent do you think this is? How have you dealt with these kinds of situations? I won’t publish your responses, but I may contact you for more information. Respond to the email below.
Sandra Shea is managing editor for opinion. email@example.com