“Nonsense” or not, Cain allegations bring attention back to gender-based workplace struggles

It’s no surprise the allegations of sexual harassment against GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain are still grabbing headlines weeks after Politico first reported the National Restaurant Association settlements with two women.

But more surprising, or at least eye opening, has been the media discussion about sexual harassment as a legitimate offense. Politics have always been clouded by sex scandals, recently demonstrated by the likes of Anthony Weiner and John Edwards. In these cases, the misconduct was clearly inappropriate.

With sexual harassment, however, the lines between appropriate and uncomfortable can be seen as blurred. The Gender Report decided to take a deeper look at the definition of sexual harassment, and the different takes the media have had in regards to the Cain allegations.

History and statistics

Sexual harassment is defined by Title IX of the Civil Rights Act as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature…” when the conduct “explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

One Yale scholar described the inclusion of sexual harassment in this sort of legislation as “momentous.” Before this time, sexual harassment was not necessarily seen as a serious offense and often blamed on sensitivity or over-exaggeration on the part of the victim. Most companies now have explicit sexual harassment policies in place. The Civil Rights Act put sexual harassment on the same level as harassment or discrimination based on race, religion, or disability.

The most famous case of sexual harassment came in 1991 when Anita Hill claimed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her during her time as his assistant. (The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, and the Huffington Post were just a few media outlets to compare the Hill controversy to the current coverage of Herman Cain.)

In Fiscal Year 2008, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 13,867 charges of sexual harassment. 15.9 percent of those charges were filed by males. A November 16 ABC/Washington Post poll found 1 in 4 women reported harassment in their workplaces.

Cain and the media

As is the case for several claims of sexual harassment or violence, Cain has labeled the four women who accused him of harassment as anything from “troubled,gold-diggers, and outright lairs planning a coordinated effort to derail his bid for president. He also accused the media of “fundamentally unserious” journalism for reporting the allegations. A recent Fox News poll stated that over half of voters think politics or the possibility of financial gain are behind the claims.

Other voices in the debate are praising the women for coming forward, as well as trying to bring the focus back to the broader issue of continued discrimination, in the form of harassment, against women in the workplace. As one blogger for Forbes concludes:

“What’s news isn’t so much that sexual harassment still happens, but that in 20 years, we haven’t come any closer to fixing it and have actually been downgrading it as a serious workplace challenge.”

Here are some other news articles and well-written opinions about the topic:

Where are the women in the Romenesko discussion?

Journalism industry icon Jim Romenesko resigned last night, premature of his planned early retirement, following allegations by the Poynter Institute of “questionable attribution” in his posts. Romenesko, considered by some to be the godfather of the aggregator, has run a media news blog at Poynter for the past 12 years. Questions about his writing appear to have been raised by Erika Fry, an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

Julie Moos, who is the director of Poynter Online, wrote the posts about the “incomplete” attribution and Romenesko’s resignation. She has also received a large amount of criticism in this situation. Read her original post here to see examples and make your own opinion on the issue.

While there is plenty to be looked at and discussed here, we were drawn in by a Twitter request from Anne Elizabeth Moore: “I’d also like to see a gender breakdown of Romenesko links, Romenesko defenders, and @juliemmoos twitter-detractors. @GenderReport?”

Here’s where it got interesting on our part. While a gender breakdown of all of those subjects would be challenging, time-consuming and perhaps a project we’ll set aside to do more on later, we did pull a few small samples of the conversation to look at.

These were the early posts about the issue that appeared through a Google news search and that were being passed around on Twitter prior to the announcement of Romenesko’s resignation (after that and as of this morning, you’ll find more than 100). Notice anything about the majority of the authors?

And then where are a few “stories” via Storify that collected what the authors suggest are key tweets on the issue. Notice anything here?

Moos herself retweeted (or MT-ed) nearly 100 tweets about the issue as of the end of the business day Thursday, including comments on all sides. These included by rough count 73 tweets from men, 14 from women and six from organizations or groups (some tweet authors, both male and female, were repeated). You’ll find similar results if you look at the comment sections of both of her posts on the issues. Just scroll down through the comments.

Media columnist Jack Shafer asked on Twitter whether all the press critics would be standing up for Romenesko and then proceeded to list 20 of them. By my count, none are female.

And in a wrap up of the discussion and response posted on Romenesko+ on Poynter today by Adam Hochberg, the trend continues. If we don’t include the key players (Moos, Romenesko and Fry) in our count, those who are named as expressing an opinion on the matter are eight men and no women.

While we haven’t completed Moore’s request fully, our quest to look at gender in this conversation did raise some questions.

Where are the women commenting on this issue? If you do a Twitter search for Romenesko, you’ll find some women tweeting about it (and obviously a few women scattered throughout in the above small samples), but in terms of the bulk of the early conversation, it is made to appear, based on all of the above, mostly male dominated.

And where are the women press critics? Is this still a very male dominated position? From Shafer’s collection, it appears so.

These are questions we don’t have answers for, but we’re interested in your thoughts. Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

UPDATE: This post received quite a bit of traffic Friday as the journalism world reacted to Romenesko’s resignation. Here are a few snapshots of responses to our post on Twitter:

Additionally, media writer Rachel Sklar asked Shafer how he defined press critic for his list that included only men. This was his response:

To which media writer Alicia Shepard said, “HELLO???,” noting that she probably tweeted more about Romenesko than she had tweeted in weeks. Also, in response to the exchange, Clara Jeffery, editor of Mother Jones, posted:

Sklar and others suggested a need to begin work on a lady journo list. We’re glad our post helped spark this discussion and we look forward to seeing the list emerge.