Clear Fog Blog

Political musings from Warren E. Peterson

Sexual Harassment and Politics

Posted by Warren Peterson on July 18, 2008

Several years ago, then Governor Mike Lowry paid over $ 97,000 to settle a sexual harassment charge. A female employee claimed Lowry had inappropriately touched her. I don’t know Governor Lowry personally and I certainly don’t agree with him politically but anyone who has observed him knows he is an extremely gregarious if not flamboyant personality – a hugging, back slapping politician. I am always a little cautious when I hear such charges especially during an election campaign. While many accusations of sexual indiscretions by politicians prove to be true (Clinton, Gingrich etc.), I am reminded of the observation of a well-known radio host, “It is not a question of guilt or innocence, but the seriousness of the charge that counts.” Or, perception is more important than reality.

Washington State Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, running for reelection, fell victim to this recently. In a front page July 16, 2008 article, the Seattle Times headlined a story concerning a complaint against Sutherland by a female employee of inappropriate touching and comments. It was reported that he “touched her back and waist and made suggestive comments that made her uncomfortable.” Mr. Sutherland claimed that he touched her back “after a testy meeting with off road enthusiasts” and commented that she didn’t appear to have “any arrows in her back.”

I wasn’t there so I don’t know where the truth lies. The article does mention that the Times only published the story after it was revealed on a well-known Democrat blog and true to form, the State Democratic Party sent out a condemning news release. For both Lowry and Sutherland, there is no allegation of a pattern of behavior. But that is not important, the damage is done even if the charges are never substantiated.

I knew a manager, many years ago, who was well known by women employees as “one to watch out for.” A woman in my organization once worked for him. She told me he stopped by her desk one day to talk and casually draped his arm over her shoulder letting his fingers rest on her chest. He was over six feet tall, she, under five two. She took his hand and forcefully removed it off her and told him never try that again. He never did.

The point is she took care of the situation herself. Nowadays, lawyers have instilled such a level of fear in companies and managers that even a hint of impropriety is treated as a major offense. It has spawned a whole industry devoted to helping companies and institutions avoid sexual harassment suits. Once accused, it is often better to apologize and pay off the complainant than wage a “he said, she said” fight in which the “he” usually loses. Sadly, as more women enter management, we are seeing sexual harassment suits by male employees against women managers. Maybe it would be better if parents trained their children to be more assertive when they feel someone is treating them inappropriately.

As a member of the predator class of humankind (males), I’m sure virtually every one of us has made a comment, told a joke, looked at or even touched a female in a way that made her uncomfortable. And most of us have been told so by word or action and didn’t repeat the behavior. We live in a time of mixed messages. Look at TV. The cable show “Mad Men” about an advertising firm where sexual harassment is the norm was recently nominated for an Emmy. Try the popular show “Friends” and its message of no consequences sex. Advertisements from Viagra to Victoria’s Secret litter the media. No man still breathing will think the same way about a woman he works with professionally after seeing her in a string bikini at an office pool party. None of this excuses boorish behavior nor does it mitigate the harm done by serial abusers who should be punished. But we do need to pause and reflect before we brand a public official with a scarlet letter, especially just before an election.

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