Retreat for Advances?

The fight against sexual harassment reaches the Supreme Court

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As the courts increasingly find employers responsible for the offensive behavior of their employees, many corporations have issued strict antiharassment guidelines and screened films like The Power Pinch, a 28-minute movie depicting various forms of illegal harassment. Capital Cities/ABC and CBS are sharing the cost of producing their own film. Both networks settled major harassment suits out of court last year. At ABC, Cecily Coleman, who made $60,000 a year working on a voter-education project, said she was fired after reporting sexual advances by her supervisor. Elissa Dorfsman, former general sales manager of WCAU-FM, a CBS-owned station in Philadelphia, accused a vice president of publicly harassing her.

Many cases, however, fall into a bewildering gray area. One man's sexual joshing is one woman's harassment, and a boss unwise enough to press a subordinate for a date may find himself up on charges if the subordinate's career goes on hold, even for legitimate reasons. Some cases are complex because harassers are becoming more sophisticated. "Now it mostly happens privately," says Jenifer McKenna, executive director of the Women Lawyers' Association of Los Angeles. "One thing such men have learned is that you don't do it in front of witnesses." In borderline cases, a complainant may trade sex for advancement, then end the affair, lose her upward mobility and file harassment charges. Christine Masters, a trial attorney for the EEOC in Los Angeles, says of one such current case, "How is that going to play with a jury?" Masters also reports that women are starting to file charges against other women in the office who sleep their way to the top.

But the main problem is still the unbridled office Lothario. Most feminists agree that the law is now doing much more to protect the working woman than it did a decade ago. Says Sauvigne: "The progress has been remarkable." No matter what the law says, however, it still takes courage for a woman with a legitimate grievance to go public with her complaint. "It's all very well to say you have the right to sue, but it's a terrific amount of time, energy and expense," says Laura Sager of New York University's law school. That situation is unlikely to change whether the Supreme Court rules for or against Mechelle Vinson.

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