At a place I once worked, some of the guys used to throw a football around the office from time to time, ostensibly as a way of relieving tension or relaxing a little in the midst of a hectic workday. The fact that their female colleagues considered a football whizzing past their heads as a serious deterrent to relaxation apparently never entered their minds.
Most of us non-football-hurling females responded with sighs or glares or other silent signs of disgust and simply waited for the jock breaks to end so we could resume our work.
But then, one day, after a particularly vigorous session, the smartest woman among us (not I) took the football from its resting place in the “team captain’s” office and, after the guys left for the day, buried the ball in a deep file drawer labeled something like “Miscellaneous Research Projects.”
I don’t recall that any of the men ever dared to ask about the football; even the thickest among them got the message. For all I know, the ball is still in that file cabinet.
It’s hard to imagine a similar football-tossing scenario playing itself out in my current office. But if it did, I’m sure that I – or any of the other women in the office – would simply ask the jocks to stop.
But years ago when the football was grazing my ears, I was working in a male-dominated office in a male-dominated profession. Being tough was as important as being good at what you did.
Today the football story makes me laugh, but truthfully, if I think about it long enough, it makes me mad, too. Not so much at the guys who were throwing the football, who were actually decent people who would have ceased and desisted if they’d been asked, but at the fact that I felt I couldn’t speak up without sounding like a wimp.
Not so many years ago – 20, 15, maybe – it seemed to me the message was crystal-clear, if unspoken: “You want to play with the big boys? You think you’re tough enough? OK, we’ll see.”
The “we’ll-see” part pretty much guaranteed that there would be a few little tests along the way so they – the boys – could gauge just how much you could take. Nothing serious – certainly nothing that would rise to the level of genuine sexual harassment. Nothing egregious. Just the occasional off-color joke, the odd reference to female anatomy – just enough to keep you a little off-balance.
So has anything changed? I think so. Me, for one thing. I’m possibly wiser, but definitely older. For all the disadvantages that come with age, you do learn to speak up.
The numbers are changing, too. Being female in my profession – and a lot of others – is not nearly as lonely as it once was. And the balance of power has shifted; it’s not just males making the decisions.
But I think men in the business world have changed, too. Not all of them, of course. But most men are smarter. Some of them grew up with working mothers. Most of them have wives or sisters or even daughters in the workplace. They get it, for the most part.
Many factors have contributed to this change; but the pivotal event had to be the 1991 confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that included allegations of sexual harassment from law professor Anita Hill.
Thomas was ultimately confirmed, but the televised hearings and the discussion they generated ultimately galvanized women – including some who had not previously been galvanized or even thought much about galvanization.
And the same out-in-the-open hearings both scared to death and enlightened a lot of men. The fact that a woman might actually take offense at – and make public – some “harmless” little remark meant as a joke hit a lot of men like a ton of bricks. And not a minute too soon.
I’m not naive enough to think that sexual harassment is a thing of the past. And I suppose that somewhere in the working world some guy might still be throwing a football of one kind or another around an office. But I believe – and I hope – that his female co-workers will either tell him to stop or simply lob it right back at him.
Susan Percy is editor of Georgia Trend.