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Complacency Not Good Enough

Ann Lesperance, a scientist, was in Latin America on business and during a meeting, one of the men made repeated derogatory comments about her. She finally stood up and said: “Never say anything like that to me again.”

Not only did he stop, but all the men in the meeting treated her with more respect. Lesperance told this story at the Northwest International Women’s Conference held recently in Seattle. The conference message was hopeful: Men and women can work together to bring about much-needed changes that will make the workplace more humane and productive. But the transformation will be marked by growing pains. We’ve seen some in past weeks.

Gov. Mike Lowry is under investigation for possible sexual harassment. Sam Angove, a 26-year veteran of the Spokane County Parks Department, announced he will resign in May. Complaints had surfaced that Angove’s brusque style created a hostile work environment. Kootenai County recently paid $7,500 to a former legal secretary who said she was fired for complaining about sexual harassment.

These growing pains cross gender lines. As women move into management positions, more harassment charges will be leveled at them, too. Recently, a former female Spokane deputy prosecutor was investigated for - and cleared of - charges that she was biased against pregnant employees.

Though the growing pains cause turmoil, they should be viewed as a positive sign that the workplace is finally maturing. Think back 30 years. A military style of leadership ruled most offices and if a boss harassed, there was little employees could do.

Workplace changes came about in part because women entered the workforce in record numbers. Also, managers trained in the military style died off, retired or were replaced by managers trained in collaboration.

It’s natural to feel nostalgia for the old way. Mostly gone from our newsroom, for instance, are the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, cynical reporters with chaotic personal lives. Some lament that our profession has lost its edge because of it.

But there’s no turning back.

Ultimately, individuals must help shepherd in the changes. It can be confusing knowing what’s acceptable, what’s not. Ugly lawsuits could be avoided if people in the workplace simply respected one another and spoke up, right away, when treated with disrespect.

Dr. Margaret Ellen Mayo Tolbert, the first black woman department head at Argonne National Laboratory, told conference participants: “Speaking up makes the difference. Don’t believe it when someone says that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.”

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Rebecca Nappi/For the editorial board