Sexual Harassment: The More Things Change...

I hate the smell of gin. That's what I kept thinking about as I watched HBO's movie, "Confirmation," which revisited the uproar surrounding Anita Hill's testimony during Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings.

What does the smell of gin have to do with Anita Hill and sexual harassment?

The year was 1982, and 25-year-old me was a young associate at a Chicago law firm. I had a great group of colleagues and peers -- we were young and single and working hard and scared and clueless. They were my friends and the firm was my whole life, professional and social, during those years.

Several nights a week, around 6:00 p.m., my office phone would start ringing. "The lion walks." "He's on the prowl." "Just rounded the corner and headed up your hall." Before long, there he would be -- one of the more senior and powerful partners of the firm, lounging in my doorway or sitting, uninvited, in one of the chairs in my small office. He had a styrofoam cup of gin in his hand, an oily smile on his face, and double entendres that, to him, never got old.

It didn't help to close my door. He would enter. It didn't help to be on the phone. He would wait. It didn't help to say I was working on deadline. He would sit and watch. You know this guy. He's the one who always holds on a bit too long when shaking hands, who invades all norms of personal space, so that the smell of his cologne clings to your hair and clothes. The one who is so certain of his charm that no rules of social conduct apply to him.

Now here's the thing. I was a staunch feminist. But I also loved flirting with men. In all the experience of my 25 years, I had never yet met a man whose attentions, if unwanted, could not be deflected with humor. I was young and cute and sassy, and it worked for me. So when Senior Partner (let's call him SP) first started sniffing around, I would respond with something breezy. I wasn't one of those angry women who had to make a simple, flirtatious overture into something unpleasant. I would joke and parry and, I thought, deflect.

Contrast the associate, a couple of years my senior, the lovely and brilliant southern belle who turned into an ice queen the minute SP showed up. She would level him with a single, cutting comment that was crushingly effective and yet never made her sound like a bitch. Perhaps you have to be raised in the Deep South to perfect the technique. I didn't know how to do that, and it wasn't my style anyway.

So by the time it became clear that SP was not going to be deterred, I thought I couldn't do anything about it because people would say I encouraged him instead of shutting him down. They would say I led him on, joking with him instead of telling him to leave me alone. I thought maybe I had. I was ashamed. I was scared. Most of all, I didn't have a clue just how young I was.

I bit my tongue and fled his office when he showed me naked pictures of himself. I lied and said I wasn't alone when he called me from a pay phone near my apartment on a Sunday morning and asked if he could come up. I considered leaving the firm.

Remember: this was before the Supreme Court said "sexual harassment" was gender discrimination. Most people had never heard that phrase. There were no sexual harassment policies or training. When Anita Hill raised it almost ten years later, a lot of people still thought it wasn't real, that she was just an angry woman with no sense of humor. You know, the woman I was trying not to be.

The last straw came when I was on a business trip in New York, and SP called my hotel to say he had come to New York to be with me. That's when I knew that, whether it ruined my career or not, I had to ask for help. With unsteady hands and a shaky voice, with sweat soaking my hairline, with my heart pounding so hard I was certain it could be heard, I called the partner in charge of my division.

I suspect you know what happened. Nobody criticized me. Nobody shamed me. Nobody suggested I had acted inappropriately. These were good people. They talked to him, they protected me, and the misery stopped. Whether you suspect what also happened, though, may depend on your age. SP wasn't disciplined (that happened many years later). He was simply told to leave me alone. Business continued as usual. He had a lot of that business and it was important to the firm. It was the 80's; that's just how it was.

I am happy that, today, what happened to me is unequivocally illegal and unacceptable. But here's what I know from many years of mentoring young women and dealing with executives who behave badly: it's still scary to complain. To risk being labeled as humorless or bitchy. To risk being the buzz-kill who causes rooms full of men to fall silent when she enters.

We have to support women who are the victims of sexual harassment by more than just doing what the law requires when one of them is courageous enough to complain. We must remember to treat her with empathy and care and compassion. We must remember not to exchange significant glances when she speaks, or joke about her when she's not in the room.

We have urgent business. We must make sure our young colleagues never have any reason - none whatsoever -- to hesitate to come forward. And that they can enjoy their G&T's.