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Business Casual: A $20-million Toast

I’m betting that many glasses of chardonnay were raised in heartfelt salute when word came that Fox News was paying a cool $20 million or thereabouts to Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox host who sued Roger Ailes, the now-deposed CEO, for sexual harassment. One of those glasses belonged to me.

I don’t think there are too many people left who actually doubt that harassment – in varying forms and degrees – was and is still a part of too many workplaces. But a high-profile defendant and a very large, attention-getting settlement may finally signal that you can’t get away with it forever.

It’s about time that message got sent – for all the women who suffered grave humiliation or degradation or worse. And for those who endured lesser offenses – smutty jokes, anatomical references, put-downs masquerading as compliments or pats on the shoulder that lasted a little longer than they needed to.

If working women put up with all this, it sure wasn’t because they asked for it (a common harasser refrain) or didn’t mind or didn’t notice; it was much more likely because they needed a job or wanted to prove themselves in male-dominated professions.

I come from a long line of women who, in the language of previous generations, “worked outside the home.” I had a New York grandmother who was a telephone operator for a law firm on Wall Street – which, in the era of monster switchboards and the smartly efficient women who answered the calls and plugged the callers into the appropriate lines, seemed like the coolest job in the world to me.

My Georgia mother, widowed at a young age, was employed as an executive secretary and office manager well before it was commonplace to combine career and motherhood.

By the time I joined the labor force, working women were hardly a novelty, but we were still toiling in professions and workplaces where the guys made the rules.

Among those rules, written and unwritten: females made the coffee and generally got paid less than their male counterparts; men drank the coffee and set the tone of the office.

Often that tone meant women were called “Honey” by their male counterparts, but men weren’t addressed in the same fashion. Practically all women, whatever their age, were referred to as “girls” and expected to be flattered by the term. Grin and bear it.

One of the clearest messages I recall getting was that you’d better be tough if you want to play with the boys. Don’t act like a girl. Don’t be running to the ladies’ room to cry over an insult or crude remark. Don’t go whining to human resources if somebody else gets the assignment or promotion you think you deserve. Roll up your sleeves and work harder. And then work some more.

Sometimes that worked, sometimes not.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t all grim; work could be pretty great, and even the grim parts went better with a laugh. (Women’s workplace humor is an as-yet-undiscovered treasure trove, but not necessarily recommended for the faint of heart.)

The thoughtless comments and boys’-clubhouse atmosphere weren’t pleasant, but there were real dangers and soul-scarring humiliations that I did not experience personally, although many others did.

Twenty years ago I was hopeful that my daughter would work in a world where gender equality was a given, where workplace parity was built into every policy, every pay scale, every assignment and every opportunity. I believe things are better in many respects, but the working world is not yet where it ought to be.

But fair warning to that working world: I have a two-year-old granddaughter who has her grandmother’s sense of justice, her mother’s talent-fueled determination and an iron will of her own. You’ve got about 20 years to get it right.

Meanwhile, I am allowing myself to be encouraged by a $20-million hope that accountability has entered the workplace picture to stay.

One more thought: Before we finish off that glass of chardonnay, let’s use a little of the wine to toast the office good guys – and there were – and still are – a lot of them. They weren’t oglers or insulters or slackers or inappropriate touchers or creators of hostile workplaces. They were colleagues in the best sense of the word.

I appreciated them then, and I still do. Here’s to you all.

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