A Setback for Pinups at Work

  • At factories, construction sites and shipyards across the U.S., girly pinups -- often so anatomically explicit they would make Betty Grable blush -- are the workingman's constant companion. Although women hold 8.6% of skilled blue- collar jobs, their presence has done little to diminish the existence of these graphic images. For their part, courts have been reluctant to rule that pornographic pictures constitute a form of sexual harassment in the workplace, mainly because such photos are ubiquitous.

    Now a ground-breaking decision by the federal district court in Jacksonville has changed all that. The court ruled that pictures of naked and scantily clad women displayed at the Jacksonville Shipyards qualify as harassment under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Such a "boys' club" atmosphere, wrote Judge Howell Melton in his 98-page opinion, is "no less destructive to workplace equality than a sign declaring 'Men Only.' " The Florida branch of the American Civil Liberties Union promptly denounced the decision as a possible violation of free speech, but many women were jubilant. Exulted University of Michigan law professor Catharine MacKinnon: "This is a stunning victory."

    The landmark case was brought by shipyard welder Lois Robinson, who accused her employer of ignoring the display of pornographic images and condoning the routine verbal abuse of the six females among the 846 skilled-crafts employees. Robinson and two other women testified that they endured a barrage of comments from their male peers, perhaps the mildest of which was "I'd like to get in bed with that." The offending photos, many of which came from calendars provided by tool-supply companies, included a nude woman bending over with her buttocks and genitals exposed, a nude female torso with USDA CHOICE written on it and a dart board that displayed a drawing of a woman's breast, with her nipple as the bull's eye.

    At the trial, the shipyard presented an expert witness who asserted that such depictions would not offend the "average woman." Judge Melton was not persuaded. Among other things, he said, females in a "sexually hostile" workplace are a captive audience for pornography and are usually reluctant to challenge superiors and colleagues over the issue. "Nobody's stopping the men at Jacksonville Shipyards from reading pornography," says Alison Wetherfield, an attorney with the women's advocacy group that represented Robinson. "They're just saying, 'You can't do it here, boys.' "

    Jacksonville Shipyards has refused to comment on the ruling. Under the federal-court decision, the company must institute an antiharassment policy and take down the photos. But it will doubtless be a long time before similar displays are removed from work sites around the U.S. Technically, the decision applies only to Judge Melton's jurisdiction and is unlikely to spur a surge of harassment suits elsewhere. Besides, says Boston University law professor Kathryn Abrams, "pornography is considered in the tradition of good old, all- male fun, so it's going to be very hard to change." Hard, but no longer impossible.