Keeping Abreast of a 'Hostile Work Environment'
A brief article in The Boston Globe the while back caught my eye.
A U.S. Court of Appeals has overturned a district court holding that "habitual breast staring did not create a hostile work environment."
Nancy Billings, a secretary to the town administrator in Grafton, Massachusetts, had claimed that said town administrator had, in repeated interactions with her, stared at her breasts. She wasn't alone - other women had noted the problem, and complained to the town's Board of Selectmen.
The behavior would stop for a while - but only a while. Then Billings boss was at it again.
Billings original complaint argued that she was a victim of both harassment and retaliation, namely:
...being reprimanded, banned from the administrator's office, charged personal time for attending a deposition and mediation (while other town employees were not charged) and transferred from the town administrator's office down to the recreation department, an arguably less prestigious position that required her to clock in.
(This summary, and other information in this post, is taken from the web site of Chicago law firm Meites, Mulder, Mollica and Glink - how's that for a mouthful? - which, I guess, specializes in EEO cases.)
The town of Grafton had argued that staring at a woman's breast should not be deemed sexual in nature, because it did not involve touching or sexually-laced comments. (Duh?) And the lower court had obviously bought this argument. (Double duh?)
Fortunately, the higher court has ruled that the behavior of the town administrator could, in fact, be considered harassing - and that staring at a woman's breast was nothing other than sexual in nature.
While I never had a manager who behaved in this way, I do know the breast staring feeling - and it's not comfortable.
Years ago, I worked with a very nice fellow who had the unnerving habit of looking at a woman's breasts when he was talking to her. All the woman in the office joked about it, but we chalked it up to "Ben being Ben."
Ben was a techie, and, like many of the techies we worked with, he was socially awkward, and especially clumsy around women.
Despite the breast staring, we all liked Ben. He was truly a decent guy - kind, personable, good sense of humor. If it wasn't for the breast thing...
A few of us did mention something to Ben, and he would just turn beat red. One of us - I truly can't remember if it was me or my friend Liz - on one occasion, pointed to our chests and said, "These are breasts," then pointed to our eyes, saying, "These are eyes. When you're talking to someone, you look in their eyes, not their breasts."
Ben was a peer, not a manager, but his behavior would have been more disturbing if one of us had been reporting to him.
Mostly, we just laughed it off. (I haven't seen Ben in years - I wonder if he ever outgrew this habit.)
I worked with another techie who had a breast obsession of a different sort.
Ira, a fellow manager, would sit at management meetings drawing objects that most people would plausibly interpret as being breast- like in nature. I was the only woman on the management team, and I was pretty friendly with Ira. Again, like Ben, Ira was a very nice man, and I liked him a lot. The curlicue breast-like drawings I could have lived with out.
One event sealed my interpretation of Ira's doodles.
I had helped Ira out with a presentation he had to give, and he took at moment at our next meeting to "thank Maureen for being my wet nurse."
"Wet nurse," I yelled. "Wet nurse?"
"Help me out here," Ira said. 'What's the word I'm looking for?"
"It's nursemaid," I told him, "And if you're looking for a wetnurse, you'd probably not want to pick someone over 40 who never had a child."
Yes, I will confess that I've gotten a lot of laughs out of Ben and Ira stories over the years.
But it certainly would have been a different story if I'd had a reporting relationship with either one of them.
I'm glad that Nancy Billings is going to get her day in court.
My guess is that her boss wasn't a leering, evil, salacious monster. He may well have been, like Ben and Ira, a goofball, a nerd. Maybe he has Asperger's. Maybe he can't help himself.
But he still put the women around him in an uncomfortable position.
And however little he could help himself with respect to his breast-staring compulsion, the punitive tack he took when Nancy Billings complained lifted him out of the category of harmless.
Good luck to Nancy Billings as she furthers her complaint.