Heard it through the grapevine

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October 22, 2002 // UPDATED 1:32 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Elana Centor
Elana Centor

For women battling rumors, it's not such a long way from the playground to the workplace

Call it the white van syndrome. Until last month, I had no idea how many white vans are driving around our city streets. That was before they were rumored to be part of the Washington D.C. sniper spree. Now, I see them everywhere. When it comes to white vans, my consciousness has been raised.

White vans are not the only rumors I've been paying attention to. For the past week, I've been thinking about women, their climb up the corporate ladder, and the rumors that accompany them on the way up. When you start paying attention, you realize these rumors are as common as a white van driving up 7th Street.

It started with a mere 20-second scene on a TV show. My 13-year-old daughter Berit and I were watching "American Dreams" -- the TV series set in Philadelphia in the early 1960s. Young Meg has just earned a spot as a permanent dancer on the "American Bandstand" show. Within a week, a rumor spreads through her parochial school that she got the job because she "put out" for one of the producers. The audience knows this rumor is false -- Meg is definitely not that kind of girl.

Would it be any different today? Not on "Dawson's Creek," another of Berit's favorite shows. In this episode, the young co-ed is struggling with a difficult college professor. The advice of her male friend? "If all else fails, you can always sleep with him."

The hemlines may have changed, but the basic attitude is the same: women -- and young girls for that matter -- don't achieve success on merit alone. How could we? That would mean we are as capable as our male counterparts. A thought that neither the media nor Corporate America has embraced.

Fast-forward 18 hours. I\'m chatting with a client about an associate. I ask how she\'s doing.

Karl responds, "Oh, I heard Gina became a director."

Before I had a chance to say "isn't that great news," Karl interjected, "Yeah, I heard she was having an affair."

Is the rumor true? Who knows? That's the rumor's viciousness. Once it's out there, it's out there -- and has a very long shelf life.

Leora Tanenbaum, author of "Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation" and the recently published "Catfight: Women and Competition," has spent a lot of time studying the impact of false rumors.

\"People still do not believe that women earn their power legitimately. Even though there are many women in the workplace, the old stereotypes persist. If a woman is competitive, ambitious and not apologetic for it, her sexuality is called into question."

Lydia -- drop-dead gorgeous and in a field requiring her to be on the road for weeks at a time -- has had more rumors spread about her supposed sexual escapades than she cares to discuss. Lydia, married to the same man for over 20 years, is the mother

of three.

\"Have the rumors hurt you professionally?\" I asked.

"I have to say no," said Lydia. "It\'s just personally painful."

"Why don\'t you think it\'s hurt you professionally?" I asked, a bit surprised.

\"Because in my field, it's almost expected. People think if you are willing to leave your family for weeks, even months at a time, that you are disengaged from them. It's just assumed you are going to have an affair."

If that wasn't enough for one week, I picked up a copy of "Cosmopolitan Magazine" as I was waiting for a manicure. When I came to the Life and Work section, the headline jumped out: "I was the target of vicious gossip."

How common are these rumors? Do they affect a woman's ability to lead? It turns out no one has bothered to do a study on that subject. As a spokesperson for Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization devoted to advancing women in business, explained, \"It would be extremely difficult to try to do a legitimate research study on rumors."

However, a study has been conducted on the effect of false sexual rumors on girls in 8th through 11th grades. Conducted by the Association of University Women, that study shows about 40 percent of these girls have been the target of false sexual rumors.

Can we extrapolate here? Tanenbaum thinks we can. That would mean about 40 percent of working women are subject to false sexual rumors. Should we be outraged? Yes. Are we? No. Why aren't we? Maybe, just maybe, it's because unless the rumor is about ourselves, there's part of us that likes to believe it's true.

If you have a good workplace dilemma or just a good story to tell, please contact Elana Centor at ecentor@mn.rr.com. You can remain confidential, as can your company.