The Right To Be a Boor

If it’s not technically harassment, do we still have to tolerate it?

Walking Out on the Boys
By Frances K. Conley, M.D.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 240 pages; $24

With the Paula Jones case and the sexual harassment debate wearing thin, a new crisis looms on the employment horizon demanding our urgent attention. According to a recent called Diversity in the Power Elite: Have Women and Minorities Reached the Top?, highly placed corporate white men are fretting over the slow but steady rise of women, blacks, and Latinos to elite positions in the workplace. Are they worried that these new arrivals will take away their jobs? No. According to the study, what they fear is that women and minorities won’t be good at playing golf.

OK, accusing a man of golf anxiety isn’t quite the same as alleging that he lowered his pants in front of a subordinate and requested service. But far from making a trivial point, the diversity study shows that the prosecutorial way we think about gender in the workplace may not always be helpful. During the past few months, Kenneth Starr’s limitless pursuit of Clinton has caused sensible people to wonder if we’ve let the battle against sexual harassment turn into a witch hunt. I agree that courts aren’t equipped to resolve many issues of gender on the job–not because the results are unjust but because they’re unsubtle.

How could the courts possibly deal with golf anxiety? Surely a person has every right to converse with colleagues who play golf. Surely he also has a right to assume that a new employee doesn’t play golf. Likewise, he’s entitled to appear shy or unfriendly around her, and perhaps unintentionally hamper her ability to network inside the company, and even then assume she lacks initiative and give her a mediocre job evaluation. But such obtuse behavior, even if legal, causes suffering, and it’s worth talking about away from the blunt, guilty-or-innocent logic of the law.

Arriving as it does on the tail end of the Paula Jones disaster, Frances K. Conley’s memoir of sexism at Stanford may encounter a kind of sexual-conflict fatigue and miss the attention it deserves. It’s a treasure trove of messy, not always courtworthy gender-job dilemmas that nevertheless need to be explored. Conley, the first tenured woman professor of neurosurgery in the country, tells how she left Stanford University School of Medicine back in 1991, after 25 years of contented teaching and research. Traditionally, of course, neurosurgery has been the elite macho pinnacle of medicine–its Navy SEALs. So at first glance, when you consider how steely Conley had to be to rise in the field, the event that provoked her to leave sounds pretty innocuous: A colleague named Gerry Silverberg got promoted to be head of the program. Conley, who’d worked with Gerry since they were in medical school, thought he was a jerk.

Sounds so far like a depressing but routine power contest. Where did sex come in? Stirred by her anger, Conley eventually began to face facts about Gerry that she had suppressed over two decades in order to concentrate on work. She recalled how in years past, during training, he made a juvenile habit of propositioning her in front of other male students–really propositioning her, thrusting his pelvis in her face and saying how much she’d like it. In recent years, he’d interrupted her during complex brain surgery and shouted, laughing, “How’s it going, hon?” All in all, Gerry was a charmer.

Conley had to admit that while Gerry had no rivals as a pig, he was hardly alone in his insensitivity. When she was a med student, all but a couple of generous male advisers had told her, paternalistically, to give up her neurosurgery dreams and stick with a nice female discipline like obstetrics. (One day she finally got the courage to knock on the door of the department chair and ask if she could join the program. He answered the door with his pants-string undone, and a glance at the couch indicated he’d been screwing his secretary.) As a young faculty member she attended weekly lunches because that’s where the networking action was. They were gross, childish stag affairs: In plain sight of everyone, one colleague would caress her thigh, daring her to make him stop and inviting all the men in the room to giggle. Then the urologists at the table would speculate about who among their colleagues could get it up.

O ne may ask why Conley put up with this for so long. It’s a fair question. Until the spring of 1991, she says, she’d basically identified with men. “Wrapped and totally immersed within the competitive cocoon of academic medicine, living every day at a great distance from the ‘real’ world, I was all but oblivious to the fact that a woman’s movement had started, and, selfishly, had no idea how other women in my own world were faring.” Conley’s writing voice even has something of a macho swagger, and once in a while it hits a false note, as if she were building her broad case against the medical profession in order to get back at Gerry, the vulgar meanie. At times, too, the (cool expertise vs. righteousness, wit vs. no sense of humor) become almost too vivid, as if she weren’t a real-life polemicist so much as an intriguing fictional character.

But here’s where the case gets really fascinating. Conley says she never intended to take legal action. She just felt Gerry would make an intolerable leader, and when he got promoted she impulsively resigned. Then she naively sent a rambling op-ed piece to the San Francisco Chronicle, outlining–in general terms, naming no names–the sexist atmosphere at Stanford. The piece wasn’t published right away. Instead a reporter called, wheedled an interview out of her, and without informing her ran a front-page story about her claims. Nightline, 20/20, NPR, etc., came along and ran stories portraying her as a crusader against “sexual harassment”–a loaded phrase with a specific legal import, which she had never used.

Now, all this happened just a few months before Anita Hill announced to a TV audience that Clarence Thomas had left a pubic hair in her Coke. In retrospect, the media transformation of Conley’s case looks like a rehearsal for its circuslike approach to Hill-Thomas. Conley had hoped to spark a general discussion of sexism in the medical academic profession. Instead the media claim of sexual harassment reorganized the debate into a contest of personal adversaries. Stanford, as big and powerful institutions tend to do, called for hearings. Conley, feeling that she should see through what she had unleashed, returned to work in a Cold War atmosphere. A two year agony of fact-finding panels and legal actions ensued, with losers both male and female: Scapegoat men were singled out for behavior their profession had never before discouraged; women who told of being pressured for sex found themselves alone, laughed at, or forced by the hostile environment to leave.

It took ages to resolve, but in the end Gerry didn’t get to be department chair (though the two are, somewhat horrifyingly, still colleagues). Conley, after becoming a kind of national clearinghouse for complaints about sexism in medical schools, traveled the college circuit to discuss flaws in both theory and practice of medical instruction. But often, she says, the resulting reforms have been cosmetic–a token low-level bureaucrat assigned to “hear” problems, with no forum to do anything about them. Which isn’t surprising. Who would want to go through this kind of divisive battle every time an allegation came up?

That’s one problem with our current approach to sexual harassment. As we’ve just seen in the Paula Jones case, it’s exhausting. Everyone gets tired of the ransacking of private lives, the cynical search for ulterior motives, the weighing of imperfect evidence; after a while, people are likely to say, “Just let it go.” There’s another problem, too. The focus on legalistic descriptions of punishable human behavior ignores unconscious behavior, the habits many men are accustomed to that don’t call for punishment but are still harmful–what Conley says occurs within “the reverberating circuitry of maleness.” The best parts of Conley’s book are about deep, institutional resistance to change: the way that otherwise admirable male professors understandably draw on their training of 20 years ago, which assumed the 70 kilogram male body as the human norm and left them totally ignorant of female health problems; the way training in elite specialties like neurosurgery still promotes a specific kind of cowboy bravado, which encourages women to bail out for gynecology. On these issues, Conley raises difficult, important questions. Unfortunately, crude history will more likely reduce her to another role, as a pioneer of the he-said-she-said ‘90s.

If you missed the links in the text, click to read more on the Yale University Press study and for some samples of Conley’s conflicted prose style.