The Harrisburg Porn Email Scandal, Translated by a Woman

What the emails say — and what they mean.

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As a human with a computer, I expect people to mess around on the clock a bit. Amazon, Buzzfeed, Facebook, The Daily Puppy (just me? fair enough): I don’t care if my taxes are paying your salary – desk captives all deserve a little Internet candy.

Noticeably not on that list? Sending misogynistic, pornographic emails to your Harrisburg broworkers.

As an optimist with a naive streak and that pesky liberal tendency to enjoy learning, I’ll listen to arguments against equal pay — there are one or two I almost buy. And I like to think that there are at least some reasonable, benign explanations for the lack of women in leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies. The idea of a glass ceiling enforced by the men I’ve studied and worked with — many of whom have hired, promoted and supported me — isn’t, on most days, a satisfying answer.

And yet, the degrading emails sent and/or received by top state officials — including the former head of the Attorney General’s criminal law division, the State Police Commissioner and two members of Governor Corbett’s cabinet — makes me think otherwise.

These weren’t simply inappropriate for the workplace. “Inappropriate” is drinking too much at the Christmas party, pushing gift wrap for your kid’s fundraiser, microwaving salmon at 11:30 a.m. – annoying, sometimes worth a reprimand, but not threatening or humiliating.

In defense, I’ve heard everything from “guys will be guys” to “Politics! Politics!” As a fan of guys-who-are-guys and with a healthy distrust of any politician, here’s how I read these emails.

What: Graphic spins on those already insufferable motivational posters with captions including: “Devotion: Making your boss happy is your only job”; “Performance: Monthly performance evaluations are mandatory for all secretarial staff”; and “Resourcefulness: Taking advantage of every opening.”

Translation: Ah, yes, a gentle reminder, just in case we were distracted by all of the high-ranking women Corbett is so quick to point to in his administration: Being smart, motivated and good at your job isn’t enough if you work for these men. To be a successful woman, you have to at least give them the impression that you’d be willing to bend over the desk — if you’re part of the “secretarial staff,” prepare to do so regularly while filling out a performance review. Impressive law degree, sweetheart — hope you left the B-team underwear at Yale.

What: Email subject lines including “Gifted Women,” “Great Motivational Projects for the Office — Live the Dream,” and “Naked Joke of the Day.”

Translation: These people are idiots who don’t know the first thing about sneaking around on computers. Right in the subject line? Come on, guys — that’s just adorable. Ms. Kane, I hope your office is preparing for the next generation of creeps who know how to hide their porn.

What: Corbett’s denial that he knew anything about the emails: “If somebody would have told me when I was attorney general that they were sending inappropriate emails, if I would’ve seen it, it would’ve stopped it like that.”

Translation: I’m willing to believe Corbett here. He was smart and savvy enough to get elected, and probably smart and savvy enough to realize that emails like these are political time bombs. But could he have really failed to recognize a work environment this poisonous? Part of me says absolutely not — people who casually send emails like this don’t sit around the conference table and act like professionals. Another part of me fears that this is so normal, so expected in Harrisburg that nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

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