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For women, a sad lack of progress in workplace harassment

Dov Charney, founder of American Apparel, was ousted last month as CEO. Charney had, the New York Times reports, “long lived under the shadow of speculation about inappropriate behavior with female employees and, in some cases, accusations of sexual harassment and assault that he always denied.”

New York Times (2011)

Dov Charney, founder of American Apparel, was ousted last month as CEO. Charney had, the New York Times reports, “long lived under the shadow of speculation about inappropriate behavior with female employees and, in some cases, accusations of sexual harassment and assault that he always denied.”

The good news for working women? There are more female CEOs running major global corporations, from IBM and GM to Yahoo. In Tampa Bay, women not only head big-name, successful businesses like Bloomin' Brands and HSN, but are in charge of all the major business incubators in this region.

This country could even be on the verge of its first female president.

The bad news for women? Workplace harassment remains far too common at both large corporations with household names like American Apparel and Goldman Sachs, and local companies ranging from a SunTrust bank branch to a surprising number of restaurants.

There also aren't any real signs of improvement in the next generation, given the recent federal investigation in which 55 colleges and universities (including Florida State) illegally handled sexual violence and harassment complaints.

Let's just say 2014 probably won't be a breakthrough year on this subject. Especially in the wake of this past week's U.S. Supreme Court siding with the Hobby Lobby chain of stores, saying closely held, for-profit employers with religious objections can opt out of providing contraception coverage under Obamacare. Coming after the court's Citizens United decision — that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations — it's becoming clear that more workplace climates will be ruled more by the preferences of individual owners and top management than the national interest.

Which brings us to some of the recent, higher-profile examples of harassment at prominent corporations. Here are three:

• Dov Charney, founder and major investor in American Apparel, a clothing company known for its sexually suggestive advertising, was ousted last month as CEO. Charney had, the New York Times reports, "long lived under the shadow of speculation about inappropriate behavior with female employees and, in some cases, accusations of sexual harassment and assault that he always denied."

The same New York Times piece and stories in other newspapers and magazines in recent years describe scenes of Charney dancing naked while on his cellphone, "parading" around a factory floor in his underwear and facing multiple legal actions for sexual harassment.

An article from as far back as 2004 in Loft magazine describes Charney touring a clothing expo at the Las Vegas Convention Center while an "assistant holding a hamburger extends her arm, keeping his snack within reach whenever her boss feels like taking a bite. Another woman follows with a tiny video camera, recording his every move."

Now Charney is busy raising his already considerable stake in American Apparel to win back control of the company.

• At Wall Street's prestigious Goldman Sachs, two former employees who had sued the company asked a federal judge this past week to expand their lawsuit to include current and former female associates and vice presidents. The suit claims the firm discriminated against women while male colleagues engaged in binge drinking and took clients to strip clubs.

"Women report a 'boy's club' atmosphere, where binge drinking is common and women are either sexualized or ignored," according to the filing, Bloomberg News reports. Goldman denies the claims.

• Whitney Wolfe was a former vice president for marketing at Tinder, an online dating app that matches couples based on physical attraction. The firm is owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp, which until 2008 owned St. Petersburg's HSN. Wolfe sued Tinder and IAC for sexual harassment and discrimination, saying she was subjected to "constant sexually charged abuse and threats" and was ultimately stripped of her status as "co-founder" of Tinder because of her gender. IAC calls Wolfe's claims "unfounded."

Alas, similar tales abound in lawsuits claiming bad workplace behavior at too many businesses operating in the greater Tampa Bay area.

Last month, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that SunTrust Bank will pay $300,000 and provide other relief to settle a lawsuit. A SunTrust branch manager in Sarasota subjected three female employees to ongoing harassment, including "repeatedly trapping a 20-year-old female behind the teller counter with his body; telling a woman she should wear a bathing suit to work; regularly staring at women's breasts; and frequently caressing and grabbing a female employee," the lawsuit stated. He would also stare at, and comment on, the breasts and bodies of SunTrust's female clients who came into the branch.

Typical of these situations, the EEOC said SunTrust ignored or did not address the numerous complaints by female employees. In addition to the fine, SunTrust agreed to conduct annual, live training for its managers and human resources personnel in southwest Florida, which the EEOC can monitor by live-streaming video.

Before the settlement, that case had been slated to go to trial on Monday.

Is it really so hard to act professionally at work? Courts in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are littered with recent lawsuits filed by women claiming their bosses or co-workers hit on them, verbally abused them or, in one case of a pregnant server, drew a fake tattoo of a penis on her back while she slept at work and then posted photos.

The bulk of these regional lawsuits involve women who are young, inexperienced and rank among lower-paid employees. Many work as servers at local watering holes, though some were employed by large chains like McDonald's and TGI Friday's.

Still other women with claims worked at small manufacturing firms, local retail outlets or the local branch of a staffing company based in Ireland. Most of these lawsuits will run their course, with the limited resources of the EEOC getting involved in some cases and deciding to pass on many of the hard-to-prove "she said, he said" claims.

Other cases will be resolved confidentially or dismissed. And many more harassed women will simply quit their jobs, frustrated and angry, and try to restart a career somewhere else.

We can do a lot better than this.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.

For women, a sad lack of progress in workplace harassment 07/03/14 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2014 1:52pm]
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