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Barbershop: A Look At Women In The Workplace Following Uber, Sterling Jeweler News

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we sit down with a group of interesting folks to talk about the news of the week and what's on their minds. And this week, we really wanted to dig into some stories about women in the workplace. And this is where I just feel I need to say that some of the situations we might describe might not be suitable for all ears. I just wanted to say that because we're talking about allegations of sexual harassment at some very well-known companies - Uber and Sterling Jewelers, which owns Jared and Kay Jewelers.

And then there's another story, this uproar surrounding the president's counselor Kellyanne Conway and the way she sat on an Oval Office couch to take a picture of a group of college and university presidents. And you might be amazed at how this scene erupted on social media with many calling her disrespectful and others saying that the social media response is sexist.

So we wanted to talk about all this. And we called three women who all have a foot in tech and media. So from member station WBEZ in Chicago, we have Luvvie Ajayi. She is the founder of the blogs awesomelyluvvie.com as well as Awesomely Techie and The New York Times best-selling author of "I'm Judging You." Luvvie, so good to have you back.

LUVVIE AJAYI: Hi, Michel. Good to be back.

MARTIN: And with us from our New York bureau, we have Danielle Belton associate editor for The Root. She's also the founder of the popular blog The Black Snob. Welcome back, Danielle Belton.

DANIELLE BELTON: Hey. Good to be back.

MARTIN: And Joann Lublin is with us. She's management editor at The Wall Street Journal and author of the book "Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons From Trailblazing Women At The Top Of The Business World," where she reported some eye-popping stories about women executives and some of the things they experienced in their career. So we're really happy to have her with us as well. Joann, thank you so much for joining us as well.

JOANN LUBLIN: And thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So let me start with these allegations about Uber and Sterling Jewelers, and I do have to say they are different. But they all kind of came out in the same time span. First, the Uber story - a female engineer named Susan Fowler wrote a lengthy blog post about her year at Uber in which she described an environment where she was solicited for sex by a manager, and when she reported it, nothing was done about it.

She found out that this happened to other women. She was penalized and even threatened for standing up for herself for trying, for example, to transfer to another team. She eventually left the company even though she says she found the work there very stimulating and very exciting.

And then after that, The Washington Post reported it had obtained documents that alleged that Sterling Jewelers tolerated an environment where women were - and I quote here - "routinely groped, demeaned and urged to sexually cater to their bosses to stay employed," unquote. And I do want to mention that Sterling disputes those allegations which date back to the - sort of the 2000. This is - all came from arbitration documents. And here's what struck me about this is that we think about kind of sexual harassment in the workplace especially in, quote, unquote, "white collar jobs," you know - we think about things like not being considered for upper management positions.

But here, we're talking about women being pressured for sex to keep their jobs. And, Joann, you had extensive interviews with women in top management positions. I have to ask you - what was your reaction to these stories?

LUBLIN: My reaction to these stories was that the thing that we thought had gone away is still very pervasive in the American workplace, and that's sexual harassment.

MARTIN: Are you surprised by this?

LUBLIN: No, I wasn't surprised at all. I was obviously very troubled, but I was not surprised.

MARTIN: How come? If you don't mind my asking why not?

LUBLIN: Because I don't think that the issue has ever gone away. I think people think it went away, and it's been there. And women, frankly, are being more willing to speak up and call attention to it than perhaps in the past.

MARTIN: Did you find, Joann, in your reporting that there were certain industries where this was more prevalent than others or not? Or you think it's just pervasive?

LUBLIN: I think just based on my own reporting, it is more prevalent in the tech industry because it is a very macho culture.

MARTIN: Luvvie, what do you think?

AJAYI: I mean, tech is - I like to say they're dude bros. So what happens is a lot of women who work in these companies feel like they're basically visiting a frat house, and they don't feel protected. And they don't feel heard and listened to.

And then even if they're not being solicited for sex, they're in meetings and they offer up a suggestion, another man has to actually confirm it before somebody else is like, oh, yeah, that's a good idea. And that's a problem.

MARTIN: Have you experienced that?

AJAYI: Yeah. I mean, I've been to tech conferences where I've been one of the few female speakers, and whenever I step on the stage, they look at me like, oh, she's actually speaking, OK, well - and since I'm not in any company, I don't get to deal with it every single day.

MARTIN: But you weren't surprised by this either?

AJAYI: I wasn't surprised, and I've heard whispers throughout the years about the toxic environment at Uber. So it was interesting that this woman wrote this very detailed blog post, and it was finally then that Travis who is the CEO of Uber was like we're going to do something to fix it. What about the other people who've said the exact same thing?

MARTIN: Danielle, what about you?

BELTON: You know, it didn't surprise me at all. I mean, the reality is that there's this illusion of equality that people think is happening because you see women who are wealthy, you see women who are executives, you see women in all sorts of fields and positions. And people think, oh, it's all over. The fight's done. We won. We did it.

And it's like no we did not. We have not made it there at all, and you have way too many men who still have the same macho entitlement attitude that has always persisted within the patriarchy.

MARTIN: You know, it makes me wonder - not to kind of veer sharply into politics - but I think a lot of people have continued to be puzzled by why the allegations of then candidate Trump's comments about women in that now infamous Billy Bush of, you know - encounter at Access Hollywood did not have more resonance with women. And this makes me wonder whether it's because so many women have experienced this. They didn't think it was that big of a deal. And so I wonder, Danielle - I don't know. Who wants to - Danielle?

BELTON: Well, it definitely is, unfortunately, a regular occurrence as a woman, you know, growing up in this society. At some point, I mean, the first time I was sexually harassed, I was 13. I was completely horrified and scandalized by it. And eventually, as a woman, it happened so often in your life you grow numb to it. And you can see how a certain segment of the female population would just be like, well, it's just a thing that happens. You know, you just - you brush your shoulders off, and you just keep on going. And that's kind of scary how it can come very normal for people.

MARTIN: Joann, what do you think? Do you think that that's the case? Go ahead, Joann.

LUBLIN: Well, I think in the case of Trump - I think in the case of Trump, he had a very strong base of supporters who were frankly willing to tolerate pretty much anything because he represented the voice of change. He represented somebody who was challenging the status quo. And they kind of felt like, well, anything that went on in the campaign was just theater.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of the Trump - oh, what - staying with the Trump campaign for a minute - now we're actually with the Trump White House. I'm going to talk about this Kellyanne Conway couch-gate debacle.

AJAYI: Oh, gosh.

MARTIN: And for those who - you hear Luvvie here - a group of presidents from historically black colleges and universities came to the Oval Office and it emerges that the counsel to the president Kellyanne Conway decided she wanted to get a picture of the group with her iPhone. And she sat kneeling on her - on the couch kind of with her feet tucked under her in a dress.

This blew up on social media, and I have to say, Luvvie, you had a very strong reaction to this. I'm going to go to you first, and this is - why did this push your buttons? You said that this pushed, like, all of your buttons and then some. Why so?

AJAYI: I was saying it tapped on my last nerves because Kellyanne was sitting on this couch like she was literally at a slumber party. It is the Oval Office, and you're sitting here with a dress on - right? - with your knees apart looking like you are texting one of your friends. It's just not appropriate behavior, and I know a lot of people were like, oh, my God, this is sexist. If a man did the same thing, I would have the exact same problem. Why are your feet on the couch first of all?

And everyone's grandmother has already told them you do not put your feet - especially with your shoes on - on my couch. And this is the Oval Office like the grand - like the most major sitting room in the world and this woman has her feet on the couch. I was like, oh, every grandmother is currently, like, throwing their shoe at her.

MARTIN: OK. Well, speaking of sexist, you know, a couple of lawmakers weighed in on this with a dinner. First of all, it was Republican Senator Tim Scott - it has to be said. Then Democratic Representative Cedric Richmond from Louisiana took it and said that it looked, quote, unquote, "kind of familiar," and there was a lot of blowback to that accusing the lawmaker of sexism.

Now, he says that this is a Southern-ism that familiar in his part of the world means too comfortable, but a lot of people aren't buying that. So, Danielle, I'm going to ask you what do you think?

BELTON: (Laughter). I just - it is amazing to me, you know - this is just further evidence of how, like, not far along most men are, the fact that you can say that out loud and think that there wasn't going to be any blowback, that people wouldn't be offended, that people wouldn't read it the wrong way or the right way. I think the way he intended it is the way he intended it.

All this acting like the word familiar meant something else like, oh, OK. So I was kind of horrified and disgusted. Like, I was already horrified - the fact that she had shoes on on the couch in the Oval Office.

(LAUGHTER)

BELTON: And then to hear that vulgar response to it is like - I've just been offended on every level at this point now.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible).

AJAYI: That was a whistle. That was essentially a dog whistle...

MARTIN: To whom? To whom was he dog whistling?

AJAYI: He was dog whistling, like Kellyanne. honestly. Like, here's the thing. I am not a fan of Kellyanne Conway. I'm just saying that it was dog whistled towards Kellyanne. So even if we don't like her, we still have to defend her womanhood.

MARTIN: OK. Joann, final thought from you really quickly.

LUBLIN: I didn't think that she should have been the subject of criticism at all. I really do think it was sexist, but I think in - on Kellyanne's part, she seems a trifle naive about the power of her office and where she is. And that, to me, was what it was really all about - political immaturity on her part, not realizing.

MARTIN: She needs to read your book. OK. That was Joann Lublin, editor for The Wall Street Journal, Danielle Belton, editor at The Root, and Luvvie Ajayi who blogs at Awesomely Luvvie. She was with us from WBEZ in Chicago - our other guests from New York. Thank you all so much for speaking with us today. More to come.

BELTON: Thanks, Michel.

LUBLIN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.