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Too Pretty A Picture

By E.J. Graff
Sunday, November 13, 2005

Isteeled myself as the camera panned slowly over a vast, sprawling mine operation. I'd come to see the new Charlize Theron movie, "North Country," which is supposed to be based on a real story of sexual harassment at the Eveleth Taconite Co., in Minnesota's Iron Range. I was expecting the film to bring alive the hostile environment the women hired there in the 1970s and '80s had endured. If it was at all true to life,the moviecould be rough going. But I hoped it would expose at last the persistent and pervasive war zone created by sexual harassment, a war zone that still exists in workplaces across the country to this day.

The movie, though, was far from the brutal nail-biter I'd expected. It not only bore little resemblance to reality, but worse, it turned the Eveleth women's two-decade battle against harassment into an inspirational tale. Yes, the men treat Josey and her fellow female workers unkindly. A few nasty things are said, and some icky pranks are played. When Josey eventually sues, the legal grilling she undergoes is unpleasant. But that's it. No woman's physical or mental health -- or life -- is ever in danger. The guys soon feel ashamed that they've been bad. Josey quickly wins enough money to improve her life. The only thing missing from this Disney-like concoction (though it's from Warner Bros.) was the Blue Fairy.

That's a shame. The movie could have helped working women; instead, it does a disservice to the thousands who still face sexual harassment and sex discrimination. Because what moviegoers see in "North Country" is as much like real sexual harassment as children's plastic-gun games are like war.

Despite the passage of 30 years, a multitude of court rulings and public debates, dozens of class action and innumerable private lawsuits resulting in expensive jury awards or settlements, what happened at Eveleth Taconite in the 1970s and '80s is still happening in American workplaces. Not everywhere, of course. Many workplaces are diligent about conducting sexual harassment training; often, to prevent private misbehavior from metastasizing into a serious problem, they hold employees to a higher standard than the law does. "Hostile environment" harassment charges haven't been proven against major white-collar corporations such as universities, newspapers or law firms in several years. As a result, many Americans likely believe that sexual harassment today consists of nothing more than a few boorish jokes or an unwelcome pass from a boss or colleague.

But I have news for you. Real sexual harassment is much, much more than fanny-patting.

Consider what really happened at Eveleth, none of which you see in "North Country." According to depositions, court testimony and independent interviews, the women in the mine faced regular requests for oral sex. They were grabbed in the crotch by men who'd greased their hands in order to leave a humiliating print on the women's coveralls. Women would find sexually violent pictures, improvised penis-vagina sculptures, or viciously explicit graffiti in and on their lockers, in their bathrooms or in their work areas. They were flashed in the parking lot, grabbed and groped in public, and propositioned while cornered. They were stalked for days, weeks or months by male co-workers. One found her stalker in her house at 3 a.m.; another's regularly left his semen on the clean clothes in her locker. As one victim told Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, who wrote "Class Action," the 2002 book on which the movie is based, "Intimidation doesn't even come close to how I felt. It was pure fear."

All these details (as well as still uglier things that can't be printed in a family newspaper) are relatively common in "hostile environment" sexual harassment cases. Had I not read dozens of depositions, injunctions, verdicts and court orders, and interviewed plaintiff lawyers and women who'd been devastated by such situations, I don't think I could have believed exactly how common such behavior was, and continues to be.

Just about everything that happened at Eveleth Taconite Co. in the 1970s also happened in the Mitsubishi auto manufacturing plant in Normal, Ill., during the 1980s and 1990s -- leading to a $34 million settlement in 1998. It happened in the 1990s at the Dial soap plant in Aurora, Ill., leading to a $10 million settlement in 2003. It happened all over the financial services industry during the 1990s, as reporter Susan Antilla documented in her 2002 book "Tales from the Boom-Boom Room." It happened all across the national chain Rent-a-Center as the century turned, leading to a $47 million settlement in 2002. In the settlements, of course, the companies did not admit wrongdoing -- and yet settled for multi-million-dollar sums and years of court oversight.

Patterns of sexual harassment have continued to crop up across the country, up and down the economic food chain: at the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice; in the District of Columbia's jails; at several Ford plants; at an Alabama chicken processing plant; at car dealerships; in Pizza Huts and Burger Kings; on police forces; and in various branches of the military. In 2004, a fairly typical year, awards or settlements of sexual harassment allegations totaled at least $35.5 million -- most for gruesome violations of the law.

After enduring years of this abuse, some women finally collapse and are diagnosed with psychotic breaks, crippling depression or post-traumatic stress disorder so bad that even company doctors agree they can never work again. Others change careers entirely. One once-ambitious production manager at the Dial plant went back to school and is now an accountant earning less than she would have had she stayed in manufacturing. "I couldn't take the chance of going back into another world like that," she told me.

Why does it happen? Too often, it's because some women want to be paid as well as men, their male colleagues don't want the competition, and their bosses don't bother to make the harassment stop.

Social scientists have shown over and over that women will jump at the chance to move from a "pink" paycheck to a "blue" one, no matter how dirty or onerous the work. Just try supporting a child or two or three, and maybe a disabled husband, on a waitress's or a bank clerk's wages. It couldn't be done in the 1970s, and it can't be done today. "Men's work" still mostly pays 1 1/2 to three times as much as comparable "women's work." That's the wage difference between an office temp and a day laborer, a file clerk and a firefighter, a social worker and a parole officer, a bank manager and a stockbroker.

And yet in 2000, two-thirds of U.S. working women were still crowded into 21 of the 500 occupational categories, with the top 10 including receptionist, secretary, cashier, sales worker, registered nurse, elementary school teacher, nursing aide, bookkeeper/accountant/auditor and waitress. Women still make up only 2 to 20 percent of all engineers, police officers, firefighters, mechanics and construction equipment operators.

Perhaps such jobs would never be 50-50 male-female, even if men behaved collegially toward women in every mine, factory, police force and stock brokerage in the country. But keeping women's numbers below 2 or 3 percent takes real effort. And sexual harassment has a proven track record in keeping women out. Consider the case of one Muskogee, Okla., woman who, as was shown in a public investigation, was driven off that city's firefighting force, even though she had the highest scores in her class on the entrance exams and physical tests. Being a firefighter had been her lifelong dream. But after her experience, she went pure pink, becoming an office manager and considering going to nursing school. As she told me with concentrated fury, "I never, never want to work in a male-dominant facility again."

Men who use sexual harassment to drive women out of previously all-male workplaces are often quite open about what they are doing. They are documented as saying that women don't "belong" in the mines, or in securities trading, construction, correctional work -- because women can't "handle" the dirt, the pressure, the criminals. Many of these men then enforce that belief through a brutal, persistent campaign of sexualized violence. Men who object are frequently ostracized or face retaliation themselves, which silences any others who may also disagree. Those who could put a stop to such treatment -- union leaders or company managers -- either approve or are indifferent to it. So after a burst of job desegregation in the late '70s, enforced by courts and executive orders, nonprofessional (and some professional) women who tried to break into blue-paycheck jobs have been driven back into the lower-paying world of pink.

Lawsuits haven't made things much better. Even leaving aside the retaliation for filing a complaint, the legal process itself can be as emotionally brutal as a rape trial. Plaintiff lawyers talk about something called "litigation damage"; some of these women (including Lois Jenson, the woman who sued Eveleth and the real-life counterpart to "North Country's" Josey Aimes, whose case dragged on for 15 years) end up more damaged than when they started.

I had hoped that "North Country" would help expose all of this. The real women at Eveleth Taconite Co. worried about being "Silkwooded." In 1974, you might recall, Karen Silkwood -- who tried to expose dangerous safety violations at the nuclear plant where she worked -- was killed in a late-night car accident that many people believe occurred under suspicious circumstances. Most of us know Silkwood's story from Mike Nichols's 1983 movie, a belated gasp from the 1970s filmmaking impulse to tackle harsh social issues.

By contrast, "North Country" is a sanitized fairy tale, made by Hollywood executives who apparently believe that we Americans have lost our taste for reality. Will someone please make the Grimm tale that we really need?

Author's e-mail:

journalist1@brandeis.edu

E. J. Graff, a senior researcher at the Brandeis Institute for Investigative Journalism, collaborated on former Massachusetts lieutenant governor Evelyn Murphy's recently published book, "Getting Even: Why Women Still Don't Get Paid Like Men -- And What to Do About It" (Simon & Schuster).

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