Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the July 5, 1993, issue of The Boston Globe.
Some folks believe that sexual harassment is just a figment of the woman’s imagination: misreading a compliment, wishful thinking or humorless feminists who can’t take a joke. “You’re trying to outlaw flirting,” skeptics fume.
Excuse me, but the difference between flirting and sexual harassment is as obvious as the difference between the Boston Ballet and sumo wrestling. And in most cases, the recipients of sexual harassment — and the offenders — know it quite well.
“There’s a difference between ‘Nice dress. Let’s have a drink sometime’ and ‘How big are your nipples?’ ” said attorney Marisa Campagna, who is representing two women in a sexual harassment lawsuit against some male waiters and managers at Chili’s restaurant in Copley Place, where the women worked.
The nipple comment allegedly came one night after work, when one of the managers asked a waitress, in front of co-workers: “Are they the size of quarters or half dollars?”
Campagna’s clients, Anne Manning and Beth Paulding, left their jobs when work became unbearable. “Everything out of their mouths was sexual,” said Paulding, 22. “I’d be bending down for something I dropped, and one would say, ‘Hey, while you’re down there . . .’ and he’d stick his crotch in my face.”
One night after work, Manning lightly warned a co-worker that their manager was in a bad mood. “That’s because I’m not getting any,” the manager reportedly said. He went on to give a graphic description of what he needed and how he could get it. (You won’t read it here; family newspaper and all that.)
Manning, who worked at Chili’s for six years while she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, recalled how she stooped to bag a takeout order one night. “One of the men came up in my face and the other behind me and started rubbing up against me,” said Manning, 27.
She complained time and again — to both female and male managers — but nothing much would happen. “If anything, they’d just be transferred to another restaurant.” By the way, Manning was made a corporate trainer of other waitresses and bartenders.
She trained Paulding, who was 19 and had just signed an apartment lease when she began working at Chili’s. She needed the money, which is why she stayed for 18 months.
“One day, I came to work in a lousy mood,” Paulding recalled. “One of the managers, who is married, asked, ‘What’s the matter, you on the rag?’ ”
“I’m taken,” Paulding said he added, “but I have this friend. . . .” She said he then went on to describe his friend’s sexual organ.
Married or not, the man later that week pushed Paulding against a soda machine and tried to kiss her, she said.
When women wouldn’t go out with the defendants, they were called “dykes,” according to the lawsuit. Other women were called “fat and ugly” to their faces.
Lynne McCarthy, an attorney for Chili’s, said that an internal investigation turned up no violations of company policy, and added that there is “no merit” to the lawsuit. (Isn’t it interesting how women lawyers are often called in to defend rape and sexual harassment cases? Looks good in front of a jury, you know.)
Paulding has moved on to another restaurant, where “the men respect you and treat you decently.” Manning is bartending at a family-owned restaurant, where she has encountered no problems.
Barbara Gosselin, a construction worker, hasn’t been as lucky. She left her job because of an injury — and because of the atmosphere. “I’m not complaining about the work,” said Gosselin, 51. “My complaint is with the hostile environment. Why couldn’t they just leave me alone and let me work?”
After one man urinated in front of her, she told her boss: “I may be a laborer, but I am also a woman, and I am a lady.” She said she endured sexual remarks because she had little choice. “I’m a single mother and it paid $14 an hour plus benefits, which I didn’t have as a waitress,” she said. ‘‘But my nerves are completely shot.” She is filing a lawsuit against her union which, ironically, recruited her because it needed women.
Before Anita Hill made sexual harassment a household term, Audrey Blaney, then a janitor at Boston Edison, filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which found probable cause for most of her allegations, including unwanted sexual behavior.
It’s true that all cases aren’t black and white, that there is a gray area in workplace behavior between men and women. Blaney has some common-sense advice for men who claim not to know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate conduct: “Simply view all women with the same respect held in reserve for your mother, sister, wife, and daughter. We are all special to someone — for certain, we are all daughters.”