Saturday, December 06, 2008

Poland's gender problem: As the case of Olsztyn's former mayor proves, sexual harassment is alive and well in Poland

He is such a good man, such a good mayor. He did so much for the city. And if he smacked a few bottoms? So what?

Poland has a lot to learn about sexual equality.

The mayor's fall

It took a referendum to remove Czeslaw Malkowski, the mayor of Olsztyn, from office. Despite his complicated communist past, despite the largely unfavorable opinions of his co-workers and a slew of enemies on the city council, Malkowski did very well for himself for many years. A sex scandal proved his eventual downfall though, a situation that just couldn't be overlooked.

Looking broadly at this case, it's easy to see that civilized norms in male-female workplace relations are beginning to appear in Poland. But they are obviously nascent - a large group of Olsztynians remains convinced that Malkowski did nothing wrong. In popular Polish consciousness, especially among older people and the less educated, "sexual harassment in the workplace" does not exist. Instead, the sexual predations of an employer are simply a standard work hazard for female employees.

Blessed and defended

The public prosecutor levelled serious charges against Malkowski - three counts of sexual harassment and one of rape of a pregnant employee. A recording was aired on television that showed the mayor of Olsztyn trying to persuade, in an incredibly vulgar way, a female employee to have sex with him and "telephone sex" with one of his employees.

What would have been severely and unequivocally criticized in most other EU countries was justified in Poland. First of all, the media showed the citizenry defending their mayor and then the Roman Catholic Church interceded on his behalf. After the affair became public, prayers were offered on the mayor's behalf in churches.

Next, the members of veterans' organizations charged into the battle. One person condoned about the mayor's sexual excesses thusly: "But nothing bad happened, he didn't kill anyone and he did a lot of good for the city." Another elderly citizen, quoting an archaic Polish proverb, put the blame on the victims: "The dog doesn't take what the bitch doesn't offer" ("Suka nie da, pies nie wezmie").

The fact that Malkowski was removed from office is a good sign, but the actual numbers involved should not leave any illusions - just 32 percent of Olsztyn's inhabitants took part in the referendum, and 57 percent voted to remove the mayor. Sociologists investigated this and found that Malkowski's active critics were overwhelmingly representatives of the intelligentsia.

In fact, the Malkowski affair might not have happened had it not been for his great predecessor - former Deputy Prime Minister Andrzej Lepper, of the Self-defense party. Lepper too was damaged by a sex scandal and high-ranking Self-defense officials allegedly based the advancement and salary levels of female staff on their performance of sexual services.

Only without exaggeration…

Poland is on the right track. The problem of sexual harassment in the workplace has at last been recognized and - more or less - condemned. Women know that they do not have to agree to such propositions and that an abusive employer can be permanently removed from a position of authority through due process.

It would be good if more Polish women became aware of this. However, it would be bad if the role of gender in the workplace became overemphasized. I hope that Poland will not cross the line into the absurd, where a sincere "you look nice today" will result in the speaker being dragged off and hung from the scaffold of political correctness. It would be silly if every compliment linked to physiognomy led to a dismissal.

I remember when, 10 or so years ago, my employer at the time entered our office. "You look fantastic," he said - I had just come back from holiday, felt relaxed and had a suntan. However, my colleague, an ardent feminist, immediately gave me a lecture on what had really occurred. I learned from her that this was a form of harassment, almost a sexual proposition, which I should have firmly and unambiguously rejected instead of acting like he had given me pleasure!

I felt stupid, but after a while I decided that perhaps my colleague was objective because she was looking at the problem from the outside. She had the face and figure of a troll, and spent little on clothes or make-up. But not every little comment amounts to harassment.