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Sexual discrimination in the office has come a long way. Once predictable—spurning male secretaries and sexually harassing female underlings—on-the-job sexism has since tackled more subtle arts, from cutting strategic holes in female bartenders’ uniforms to mocking the diet of male models. A recent hunt for sexism on the streets of D.C. revealed an evolution of sexism, from its golden age to its next frontier.
THE DISTANT PAST.
When Vernon Moore, 74, entered the workforce half a century ago, only women typed. “We, as young people, were told that women did clerical work,” says Moore. “I went to Cardozo Business High School, where they said that typing was for sissies.”
When Moore went out in search of a secretarial position, he found himself surrendering job opportunities to employees traditionally assigned to “sissy” work—women. When Moore did land a clerical job, he was pushed out of sight. “I was not put in an office, as an administrative aide would expect,” he says. “I was assigned to the shops. And in the shop section, you know, you’re basically right in the middle of the paint shop,” he says.
Even the backroom position proved too visible for a black man. “At the end of my year as a temporary employee, they let me go,” he says. “When I did go back [to the shops], there was a white female in that job. So it was definitely discrimination.”
THE RECENT PAST.
Mary Lou Walen, 68, can recall two instances of sexual harassment in her medical career. In the mid-’70s, Walen had been working at “a very large prestigious institution” for four-and-a-half months before the head of the pathology department thought she was ready for a private conference.
The doctor called her into his office at around 5:15, after the rest of the workplace had cleared out for the day. “He sat across from me at the desk and said, ‘First of all, I want you to know that what I’m going to say you’re not going to be able to repeat, because nobody will believe you—you’re a new employee, and I’m the head of the department.’” Walen repeats. “Then he said, ‘I can’t stop thinking about you. I have sex with my wife and I see your face. I think about you all the time.’ And then he propositioned me.” Walen thanked him and immediately left the office. “He didn’t bother me again,” Walen says, likely because she kept up her side of the deal: “I didn’t say anything.”
Years later, Walen experienced some harassment she couldn’t stand to keep quiet. “I got chased around the desk once,” she says. This time, the male higher-up who beckoned Walen into his office got a little bit more physical. “As soon as I got into the office, he said…‘I find you incredibly attractive’—or something like that—‘and I just can’t hold it back anymore,’” says Walen. “He came around the desk with his arms out to grab me and kiss me, and I just started running,” she says. “I said, ‘Doctor!…Don’t! Stop!’ He said, ‘No, I can’t!’”
This time, Walen talked: “I told the CEO. We just laughed,” she says. “There was nothing more to it.”
Women in the booze-pouring profession experience so many advances from across the counter that they can become numbed to harassment from the back of the house. When asked if she’s ever experienced sex discrimination, Chantal, 26, is initially noncommittal. “I think so, but I can’t think of a specific example,” she says. Once she delves a bit in her employment history, however, the anecdotal evidence mounts. “I used to be a bartender,” she recalls.
At the bar, Chantal’s male manager often required some last-minute wardrobe changes for the female staffers. “He would cut my shirts—my T-shirts,” Chantal says, miming a pair of shears tearing into her chest area. Chantal’s girlfriend, Bre, chimes in to fill out the remainder of the uniform, which required no modification to achieve objectification. “You had to wear high heels and short skirts,” Bre reminds her. “Yeah,” Chantal says. “It was a requirement.”
At the bar, lucrative shifts were awarded to competent male employees—and flirtatious female ones. “For guys, it was the guys who could sell the most, the ones who were the good bartenders,” says Chantal. For women? “How much you flirt with the manager.”
Once brazen sexual advances and modifying fellow employees’ clothes go out of style, workplace sexists may have to settle on more outlandish exercises—like ridiculing male models for eating cake. Jason Cooper, 23, and Rabon Hutcherson, 25, may very well be on the cutting edge of sexism. The male models are regularly subjected to the type of sex discrimination usually reserved for women.
There’s the wage gap: “It’s almost a female-driven industry, with the Heidi Klums and the Naomi Campbells,” says Hutcherson. “And in general they’re paid more—a lot more—than the male models.”
There’s the stereotyping: “When you’re a model, your goal is to sell something, whether it’s a product, a look, or a message,” says Cooper. “Most of those products are geared toward females.” Even products geared toward men—like alcohol and cigarettes—often require a female hire. “Sex sells,” says Hutcherson. That leaves Cooper and Hutcherson shilling for “the things that men are stereotypically better at,” says Cooper. In the advertising world, men are good for wearing suits, working out, and grilling.
And there’s the sex-based harassment: “All of my friends that don’t model or act have a real hard time dealing with it,” says Cooper. “It gets old. Dropping a Zoolander line is not funny,” says Cooper. “They’re not the first person to do it; I hear it all the time. If you’re going to be annoying about it, at least be funny and original.” Hutcherson says that ribbing from male friends can border on the obsessive. “If they see you eating a piece of cake, it’s like a news flash,” he says. “Oh he’s eating cake; let’s take a picture of this; what are you doing; you can’t eat that,” he says. “I still do eat cake.”