To the workplaces sleazes of the world: Your time is up
OPINION: "Some people are leg men, some are breast men," said an old boss of mine, as he stretched a clammy hand to my head and began to stroke. "I'm a hair man." I sat there paralysed. I was 19, living in New York and grateful for the work, which was flexible and well paid. He was the only one in the office, a sole operator, my only boss. So I sat still, typing, nauseated, pretending it was a joke.
When he came out the next day, reached out his hand again and began to caress my hair, I knew it wasn't. So, like any bold woman, I jumped up and ran downstairs to get a toasted bagel. I did this each time he approached, consuming a mountain of bagels, until I finally could afford to leave.
Scratch almost any working woman and she would have stories like this. They spilled out of many of my colleagues when we watched the Donald Trump and Roger Ailes harassment allegation avalanche descend. Many were creepy moments we had shrugged off as lame, even though they were demeaning. When I was a cadet, one of my peers was whisked outside and asked to pose in fishnet stockings because an editor needed a photograph for a sex worker story. Another hid in her room when on assignment because a drunken co-worker spent hours banging on her hotel door demanding to be let in.
It goes on: flashing, fumbling, frottage-ing,chair-sniffing, dirty text messaging.
But here's the crux: few complain and, when they do, not much happens. That's always been the way. Which is why the Bill O'Reilly story is a monumental one, given his power and influence, success and standing.
When O'Reilly was born in 1949, Harry Truman was president, Helen Keller was accused of being a communist and troops were being withdrawn from South Korea. And men who made "love moves" in the workplace were called "Felix the Feeler". Women were advised not to complain, but to give harassers a cold shoulder, or just move things around on your desk to create a barrier between you and unwelcome, hovering crotches or octopus arms.
A guide published in America in 1940 advised women not to be flattered if a man made a pass at them in the office, for blokes were "always eager to test batting averages".
Another book from the same era told women never to take their concerns "higher up" as the men were unlikely to be admonished; the popular view was "a girl usually brings these things upon herself". If in doubt, they said, quit.
For a century of working life for women, the message has been the same: if you object to being sexually harassed by your boss, you will only be harmed further.
Which is why, when Bill O'Reilly was forced out of Fox News by a pragmatic Rupert Murdoch, it was the role of the younger Murdochs, James and Lachlan, that was the most interesting. These top two executives at 21st Century Fox are intent on creating a more modern workplace, with modern standards and modern consequences for men who harass or prey on their staff or colleagues. As The New York Times reported, they are "intent on steering the family ship far into a new century."
Not without resistance though. It has been almost three weeks since the Times exposed the large settlements paid out privately to women alleging O'Reilly had harassed them. As an investigation was carried out – uncovering more women and more allegations, more than 50 advertisers left O'Reilly's show. The stories were similar: clumsy sexual approaches, punishments for rebukes, leering, inappropriate remarks, requests to display cleavage. (O'Reilly says these charges are "unfounded"). Former chairman Roger Ailes had left Fox in July following another sexual harassment scandal.
But the ouster of O'Reilly, the top-rated cable TV host in America still remains astonishing. Could it be true that Rupert Murdoch, the 86-year-old mogul renowned for championing the improbable orbs of page three girls could sack a man for asking colleagues to show more of their breasts? That old-school Felix the Feelers might be treated not as cheeky blokes but discreditable, damaging distractions?
The ramifications could be enormous, especially in the media.
Consider these figures: according to a study by the Women in Media Initiative one out of every two female journalists has experienced harassment, most by colleagues or bosses. (In America, that figure has been found to be as high as two-thirds.) Compare this to a Human Rights Commission poll in 2003 that found only 28 per cent of women – and 7 per cent of men – in the wider workforce had been subject to sexual harassment.
But when it comes to tough decisions about potentially axing hosts and scalping the powerful, as O'Reilly's case shows, pressure from advertisers can prove crucial. In many ways, money remains the most potent force in ushering in the cool winds of change – a century too late, but nonetheless – and is frankly far more effective than constructing barricades on your desk.
- Sydney Morning Herald