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It is a familiar story. A supervisor is interested in sex with a subordinate who does not share that interest. The supervisor is persistent and abusive. Co-workers are enlisted to badger the junior employee. Managers pay no attention. A suit is filed. Then they notice, particularly when the jury awards $3.7 million in punitive damages. Others notice as well, particularly because, in one sense, this is not a familiar story. It is the first reported case of punitive damages in a sex harassment case brought by a male plaintiff. Robert Lockley is a New Jersey prison guard who refused to respond to a suggestion broadcast on the prison radio station: “Love is in the air, Lockley.” Co-workers called him a “wasted sexual experience” and spread rumors that his wife was just a “cover.” Managers were aware of the harassment but failed to prevent it or to punish the offenders. The case was a clear victory for men’s rights, but it was a vindication of women’s rights as well. Feminists long have maintained that sexual harassment is less about sex than about power. And abuse of power can be an equal opportunity offense. Of course, since fewer women than men are in supervisory positions, they have fewer occasions to harass subordinates. And lingering double standards make men less likely to be offended by sexual propositions and more likely to feel uncomfortable about complaining. Those who protest often end up with ridicule rather than remedies. As James Finefrock put it in a San Francisco Examiner editorial, “[T]here are always the mindless machos who say, ‘Harassment? Where do I sign up?’ ” Men constitute only 15% of those who file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and fewer still of those who sue in court. Those patterns, however, are beginning to change. Gender stereotypes are breaking down, and women employees are moving up. One byproduct is an increase in harassment claims by men that parallel those by women. A case in point involved the “ Jenny Craig Eight,” who sued a Boston branch of the weight-loss company. The men complained that they were asked to perform stereotypically male tasks unrelated to their work, such as starting cars and shoveling snow. They were complimented on their “tight buns” and advised that promotion would require a “sex-change operation”–and a “push-up bra.” At last report, three of the claims were still pending. Increasing numbers of men are also complaining about forms of discrimination that were once viewed as problems only for women. This past February, a man won the first reported sex discrimination case under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. A jury awarded $375,000 to a Maryland state trooper who was denied extended leave to care for his newborn daughter. Kevin Knussman sought four to eight weeks’ leave when his wife developed pregnancy-related complications. Workers covered by the federal law are entitled to 12 weeks of uncompensated leave and can use accrued vacation or sick leave to obtain paid leave. Under the state law then in force, primary caretakers could use 30 days of their sick leave to care for newborns. Secondary caretakers could use only 10 days, which is all that Mr. Knussman was granted. He said that a personnel manager told him that until God made men able to have babies and breast-feed, they could not be primary care providers. The only exceptions involved extraordinary circumstances, such as those in which the mother was dead or in a coma. Such assumptions help explain why men make up only a quarter of those taking unpaid leave under the federal act, and why few take the full time allotted. Fewer still risk complaining when their leaves are denied. As Mr. Knussman noted, the “John Wayne syndrome” in many workplaces stigmatizes fathers who want time off for families. Mr. Knussman was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, and for good reason. Discrimination against dads also discriminates against moms, who end up with disproportionate child-care responsibilities. Partly for that reason, Maryland has now eliminated the distinction between primary and secondary providers. As all these cases make clear, challenging gender bias is not just a women’s issue. It is a worker’s issue in which both sexes have a substantial stake. This article originally appeared in The National Law Journal, July 12, 1999. Professor Rhode, who teaches at Stanford Law School, is director of the Keck Center on Legal Ethics. She is a regular columnist for The National Law Journal.

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