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May 26, 2008

Women Harassing Men

Complaints about women bosses preying on men have doubled since 1990. What’s going on out there?

man in suit with woman behind him nuzzling his neck

Photo Credit: Valentin Casarsa/iStock

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He was just a young thing — in his early 20s — and only two months into a promising new job at First Mutual Corporation in posh Cherry Hill, NJ. That’s when Jackie Mesinger — the Pagan Princess, as she called herself, a woman twice his age — began groping Louis Oblea Jr., as he remembers it, and lobbing sexual innuendo into their conversations.

Oblea reported her to his boss. His response? Oh, she does that to some men. She’ll stop eventually. Until then, avoid her.

And so Oblea did just that, until the day after Christmas, when he logged onto his company computer and clicked on his e-mail: There was the Pagan Princess, completely nude and performing a sex act on herself. Not two minutes later, another e-mail from her landed in his in-box. This one, another woman, in a bondage getup.

Oblea complained again. He even showed his boss the pictures. Please, he said, just make it stop.

His complaints echoed up the chain of command, but they were ignored, perhaps because the Pagan Princess was also the company’s rainmaker, reeling in the big clients. Young Oblea was just an entry-level loan officer. He was expendable. Two days later, when Mesinger heard that Oblea was making noise, she sent him an e-mail. You should rethink your position, it read.

A few weeks after that, although Oblea’s manager had recently said that he was adapting well to his new position, First Mutual fired him. For poor work performance.

That’s when Oblea turned to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC filed a lawsuit on his behalf, and he received a monetary settlement from First Mutual. Oblea then quietly slipped away. No media blitz. After all, who would empathize? Was it even possible for a man to be sexually preyed upon by a woman?

The harassment of men at the hands of women is clearly having a moment. While the total number of sexual-harassment claims brought to the EEOC has been declining steadily over the past eight years, the percentage of allegations filed by men has doubled between 1990 and 2007, to 16 percent of all claims. Given that it’s estimated only 5 to 15 percent of incidents are even reported, and those that are remain confidential unless a lawsuit is filed — which rarely happens in cases where men are the victims, says EEOC spokesman David Grinberg — who knows how many Louis Obleas are out there, staring in horror at nude pictures of their female superiors? “Most complaints are mediated and resolved, and you’ll never hear about them,” says celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred. “You won’t even see a piece of paper.”

While it’s true that the boldest headlines still involve old-school offenders like Knicks coach Isiah Thomas — who was found guilty of harassing a female former Knicks executive (she claimed that Thomas told her he loved her, and also called her a bitch and a ho) — the more recent phenomenon of women taking lascivious liberties with men has slipped quietly into the zeitgeist. Note Lipstick Jungle’s stiletto-wearing magazine editor, Nico Reilly, getting slapped with a complaint after dumping her young lover, Kirby, a photography assistant who works with the magazine. The plotline is plausible because women finally have the power to be predators. We’ve come a long way since 1994’s Disclosure, about a female boss who tries to coerce a male employee to have sex with her, the very premise of which was considered silly at the time — the stuff of, well, Michael Douglas movies. According to New York City lawyer Ronald Green — who represented Bill O’Reilly after O’Reilly’s female producer accused him of, among many things, fantasizing over the phone about lathering her up with a loofah mitt — his big clients are now coming to him for help in defending their female executives against sexual-harassment claims. “Women are just behaving like those who came before them,” he says.

The relative newness of women in the corner office has lent an undeniable frisson to the corporate environment. Given how accustomed women are to drive-by comments and propositions, it can be thrilling when the tables turn and they’re the ones controlling the dynamic. Says a 35-year-old executive at a Massachusetts financial company, who has 37 men reporting directly to her: “There are days when I just think, You know, I could have any single one of these guys. Of course, in reality, I wouldn’t step over that line, but I know I could. And to be frank, that thought makes work far more interesting.” She admits to dressing for her male colleagues. And when hiring an assistant, damned if she didn’t choose the “totally hot” 25-year-old former professional hockey player. “If I have to look at this guy every day, why not have it be someone who makes me remember what a schoolgirl crush is?”

Then there are the women who aren’t totally comfortable with their professional power and resort to flirting to get what they want out of their employees. “I’ve seen this happen, when the man thinks, Oh man, she wants me,” says Rhoma Young, a human-resources consultant who investigates sexual-harassment complaints. “And the man might take someone wearing a shorter skirt who is trying to be stylish as a come-on, because that’s how they relate to women.”

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