Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sexual Harassment at Work & Crichton's Disclosure

From yesterday's Washington Post article "Judge sets aside $3.5 million civil verdict in sexual harassment case:"
A federal judge has set aside a $3.5 million jury award to a former public pool lifeguard in the District who alleged she was sexually harassed by a supervisor and then fired in retaliation for complaining about the conduct. Chief U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who presided over the trial last summer, wrote this week that the conduct alleged is “no doubt disgusting and extremely troubling, and the jury had good reason to be disturbed by the facts.” But he agreed with the District’s Attorney General that the jury’s award to the former Takoma Aquatic Center lifeguard was “so great as to shock the conscience” and “inordinately large.” Lamberth gave Carmen Jean-Baptiste 21 days to accept a smaller $350,000 award or chose a new trial on the issue of damages... At trial, Jean-Baptiste alleged that her supervisor, Rodney Weaver, spoke to her in sexually crude language, propositioned her and ogled her while she stood before him in her bathing suit, according to court documents. The District failed to respond to her complaints even after she spoke with six supervisors at various levels, she testified. Soon after filing a written complaint in October 2006, Jean-Baptiste was fired.
I imagine that there are probably a lot more instances of sexual harassment in the workplace, but we don't hear about it in the news because (a) it goes unreported or (b) if it is reported, it's handled in-house or quietly settled in order to avoid bad press.

For a novel about workplace sexual harassment, try Michael Crichton's Disclosure. My own disclosure to you is that it is becoming increasingly clear that Crichton, whose writing style I really admire (see last month's post on Airframe/airline glitches and Sunday's post on State of Fear/global warming), is a sexist.

When I first read Disclosure -- which, in addition to sexual harassment, also focuses on affirmative action policies -- it seemed like Crichton used the book as a means of exploring and debating affirmative action and that both sides get, more or less, a fair shake. But now that I'm re-reading the book, it's increasingly clear that while some characters do speak on behalf of the "women should hold more positions of power" perspective, those characters are usually despicable. Crichton's not as bad as Ayn Rand -- with her comic-book-worthy demi-god mouthpiece protagonists and her sniveling side characters that put forth straw-man arguments for all things Rand disagrees with -- but upon re-reading Disclosure seems sexist.  For example, the two main male characters which argue in favor of appointing a woman to the second-highest position in the company are the deranged boss and the two-faced lawyer.  Our near-flawless protagonist, the hard-working Tom Sanders, just wants positions to be decided by merit.  And of course, the woman in the novel who has been appointed to the company's second-highest position is not only less qualified than poor ol' Tom Sanders, but is also CRAZY.  Crichton writes well enough that you don't initially notice how contrived the whole scenario is.

Anyway: rant over! Here's the description of Disclosure (which, despite its flaws, is worth reading):
Beautiful, bright, and talented Meredith Johnson arrives at Digital Communications Technology company to become the head of a division, a position that Tom Sanders thought was going to be his. Meredith, his former lover, invites him to her office after hours and attempts to seduce him. When he rejects her, she accuses him of sexual harassment. Tom hires Louise Fernandez to defend him and reverses the accusation to name Meredith as the aggressor. To this plot, Crichton adds computer-industry sabotage, corporate mergers, video-linkups, stock options, CD-ROM jargon, and even a trip on a virtual-reality simulator to help Tom save his reputation and career.
As a final note, I find Demi Moore and Michael Douglas' exaggerated expressions on the book cover kind of hilarious.

UPDATE:  here's a longer review of Disclosure over at the Book in the Bag blog.

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