On two occasions, while working in a senior government position, I have been formally accused of sexual harassment. The first occurred somewhere in the mid-80’s, during an EPA staff retreat outside Washington, D.C. A contractor had been hired to facilitate, and one of their ideas was to run a role-playing scenario. Each of us, in our hotel rooms, received a package containing a dump of information about an environmental problem, and we were supposed to analyze it and write a report for our boss, with recommendations, and then present it to a contractor employee who was playing the boss. It was time-limited to two hours and the report had to be written out in longhand, just like in real life.

I finished on time and then came a knock on the door. Opened, it revealed my “boss,” a woman of about 22, clearly in her first job out of college and palpably nervous. I began my presentation, at which point it was clear that she really knew zip about environment or policy analysis, and was putting questions memorized off a script, and that she was not going to allow any lightness at all to penetrate her first big-girl assignment. Her expression was rather like that of my 7-year-old  daughter when, playing house, she used to talk sternly to her dolls, and I was hard-put not to crack up. My chief purpose during this farce was not to embarrass the woman, and, fearing that if I looked at her face I would indeed lose it, I kept my eyes discretely down. 

So that happened, we returned to D.C. enriched and skillfuller, and imagine my surprise when some days later I was called into my boss’s office and informed that a sexual harassment charge had been lodged against me!  The young woman had accused me of staring at her breasts during the entire meeting. Some of the sting was removed from the complaint I believe, because the contractor had also reported that I was deficient in writing skill, by which  they meant, I imagine, that it was hard to read my penmanship. Guilty.   I explained the hotel room situation to my boss, a woman, by the way, and she said that regardless of what really went down, I had to spend a week in special training in sensitivity, so I went off to another contractor-run operation and was so trained. 

The other complaint stemmed indirectly from the fact that I have a Ph.D. in marine biology but have rarely used “doctor” as an appellation during my government career. One time someone happened to say, “I didn’t know you were a doctor,” and spontaneously, Al Franken-like, I mimed putting on rubber gloves and said, “I am a doctor. Step behind that screen and take off your clothes!” Well, feeble joke, but it caught on around my office, especially in making fun of people with Ph.D.’s who demanded to be called doctor and made much about their academic qualifications. Miming rubber glove donning became something a meme on the subject of bloviating experts.

Some years later, I’m in another government office, this time working for Washington state. I breeze in after an out-of-town trip, and as I walk by her desk the office secretary-receptionist shows me a letter addressed to Dr. Michael Gruber and says, “I didn’t know you were a doctor,” and I do my rubber-glove shtick and walk on by. Later that afternoon, the office manager comes by my office with a woeful expression and tells me this woman has accused me of sexual harassment. I explained my take on the issue, went to the secretary, apologized for any offense, and thereafter treated her with a somewhat chilly professionalism. I should say that before this I had enjoyed, or imagined, a cordial, wise-cracking relationship with her, which I now thought had to stop.

The reason I present this story is not to excuse the truly hideous abuse suffered by many women in the workplace, but to point out that “sexual harassment” covers a lot of ground and that we don’t have a reliable and accepted way of distinguishing between, say, an Al Franken and an actual serial rapist of employees. That young contractor is pushing fifty now and for all I know she’s telling her story on #MeToo—horrible bestial federal manager who ruined her first job by breast-staring.  Misunderstandings happen, and jokes go sour, and it may even happen that people lie. There is going to be a lying scandal sooner or later and reactionaries will seize upon it to torpedo legitimate claims.  We have to be able to discriminate, or else one of the great pleasures of the world—working well in mixed sex teams—will go extinct. I’ve worked for women and had female staff and there’s always sexual energy around. The genius of good supervision is not to deny that energy but to channel it away from sex per se and into creativity. That so many male managers whiff this easy pitch so often is a crying shame.