IT HAPPENED long ago, back in the days when women went to lunches with their bosses knowing full well that the boss had something more than business on his mind and knowing full well that there would come a delicate moment during the second martini when she would have to turn him off.
He was a editor who had just been promoted. The scene was a fancy French restaurant, the bill was on the expense account and during the first round of drinks we talked about his new job and my career. Then it happened. He picked up his second vodka martini and with a wink and a flourish said, "Now, let's talk about you and me."
This was not, you should understand, a crisis of conscience. He was not a heart throb and I was a married woman. It was, however, a crisis of diplomacy. This was a man who could hire, fire and promote. And he had feelings. The rejection would have to be handled carefully. I told him I was flattered, that he was just terrific and I thought the world of him, but alas I was happily married and I played by the rules.
He took it beautifully and I decided that my handling of the delicate situation had been a triumph of tact. I didn't tell anyone about it when it happened, but months later another reporter in the office mentioned a similar encounter with the same editor and I told her my story. Later we found out that this editor had approached nearly every woman reporter and some of the women secretaries in the office. If all of us told the truth, he consistently struck out but that didn't stop him from consistently taking a shot.
This happened back in the days when we didn't have a name for it. When men were successful, they called it a matinee, a long lunch or working late. When they were blessed with particularly good fortune, they winked and called it a business trip.
But in recent years, it's gotten a name. Women are beginning to realize that liaisons with their bosses aren't in the job description. They're not calling it an advance anymore, and they're not delicately trying to change the subject at lunch. Now they're calling it sexual harassment and more and more they're filing suit.
The courts are finding that these cases do come under Title Seven, the basic federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. **in some cases when women have protested the harassment, they have been discharged and courts have ruled that they must be rehired and have enjoined employers from further harassment.
Last year, 255 women won a landmark sex discrimination suit against the federal Department of Energy.A number of the women included allegations of sexual harassment by male supervisors in their complaints. Gary Howard Simpson, the lawyer who handled the suit, said these were the allegations that were the hardest to get people to talk about.
Simpson said that in developing the suit, "I would be referred to women who had difficulties of this nature and I'd give them a ring and ask them if I could talk to them and with one exception they wanted to remain confidential. It was a private thing they didn't want others to know about and they were deathly afraid some one would reprise against them for talking about it. It was the most private part of their lives and they didn't want any part of it spilling over into their work situation.
"Their refusal of sexual advances didn't have to result in not getting a good job. Just the existence of that kind of activity impacts on the terms and conditions of their employment which makes it, in my view, sex discrimination in itself.
"Once that happens the only question is what remedies you're entitled to. If you don't get a promotion, then you should get a promotion as a remedy. If there's no promotion consideration involved, then at the least you should get an injunction against that type of activity and if the individual violates the terms of the injunction he should be fined or put in jail to protect society's interest in seeing that women aren't discriminated against or reprised against."
"You have to prove several things," says Donna Lenhoff, a staff attorney with the Women's Legal Defense Fund. "One is that in effect you were harassed sexually, that he made advances and you denied them. It happens in offices where there are no witnesses, it happens in little innuendoes, it happens in body language. These are things that are hard to prove, especially to an unsympathetic male judge.
"Courts are holding companies liable for the actions of indifidual employes," Lenhoff says. 'One of the things that strengthens the case under Title Seven is some sort of showing that the company was aware that this was going on, that there was an atmosphere condoing this and that the higher-ups didn't do anything about it."
Companies and government agencies that ignore this kind of behavior, such as the D.C. Department of Corrections, may indeed be held liable. But the ruling issued Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge George Hart involving the case of a woman employe in the corections department suggests that there are more serious, hidden costs in this kind of behavior.
The ruling reads like a drawing-room farce, Judge Hart found that Sandra G. Bundy had been the target of sexual overtures by a number of supervisors in the department, but that her refusals had not hindered her career progress. Judge Hart found that men in the department treated the whole business like a game. "You won some and you lost some," the judge said. In fact, only after the woman filed a formal complaint did Corrections Director Delbert Jackson take the matter seriously, Judge Hart found. Then he ordered her promoted. "It may further be inferred [she was promoted] in an effort to avoid any adverse publicity in the matter," Judge Hart wrote.
Sexual harassment is degrading and offensive, and women who bring suit believe they are doing so at tremendous personal and professional risk. They are tough cases to prove. One person's friendly wink is another person's leer.
But we are also finding that what we used to tolerate and call fooling around is now illegal. People are filing suit and if Judge Hart is right, the corrections department promoted Bundy in order to keep her quiet.
Affirmitive action officers in government agencies and private corporations all over the country rountinely tell employes about laws forbiding sexual discrimination in hiring and promotions. They do it so the companies don't get sued and lose money.
It's clear that the time has come for employers to tell their male managers about a new fact of business life - that when they sit down for that long business lunch they better stick to business.