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Joan Vennochi

‘Mad Men’ sexism in Boston

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / September 26, 2010

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DON DRAPER would approve. The “Mad Men’’ way of treating women is alive and well in Boston.

A talk radio producer chortles that Karyn Polito, the Republican candidate for state treasurer, has a “tight little butt.’’ WRKO-AM cohost Tom Finneran, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, guffaws and repeats “tight little butt.’’

That’s coarse stuff.

Over at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a prestigious teaching hospital, the retro atmosphere is more genteel. You can almost hear the ice tinkling in the martini pitcher, as then-married CEO Paul Levy hires and promotes a young woman with whom he had an “inappropriate relationship.’’ When the situation makes other managers uncomfortable, the woman is shuffled off to another position, where she is the only non-physician director to receive a bonus during lean times.

A review by the state attorney general — which was requested by the hospital board — documents that board members knew about the situation involving Levy and the woman for years, but looked the other way.

In comments to the media, Attorney General Martha Coakley urged the board to do some “soul-searching’’ about Levy’s ability to continue leading the hospital. But board chairman Stephen Kay rejected any suggestion that Levy’s actions might make him unfit for the job. “The best thing for the Beth Israel is to have Paul Levy lead the institution,’’ said Kay. After news about his relationship with a subordinate came to light, Levy apologized and was fined $50,000.

Over at WRKO, there were no apologies after producer Bill Cooksey slobbered on like this about Polito: “I think she’s hot. She’s tiny. She’s short. She’s got a banging little body on her. Facial-wise, I give her about an eight-and-a-half. Tight little butt. I endorse her.’’

“I’ve never heard you as excited about a political candidate,’’ responded cohost Todd Feinburg. Laughing, Finneran then repeated the phrase about Polito’s anatomy.

Polito’s opponent, Democrat Steve Grossman, told the Boston Herald the remarks were “sexist’’ and “profoundly inappropriate’’ and said the station should apologize. But a “Mad Men’’ mentality can infect corporate women, too; Julie Kahn, vice president and market director for Entercom — WRKO’s parent company — downplayed the commentary.

“It was a little bit sexist, absolutely,’’ she acknowledged, but, “it was more dumb than anything else.’’

Of the cohosts’ responses, Kahn said, “The guys were shocked.’’ She said Finneran “repeated in disbelief what was said.’’

Polito went on the show Thursday morning to talk about the treasurer’s race. Finneran hit her hard on issues, which is fine, although he sounded frostier than usual. Even his cohost asked him why he sounded “so hostile.’’

At the end of Thursday’s segment, Feinburg asked Polito, “Are you mad at Cooksey?’’ It seemed like a convenient way to pin the earlier sexist exchange entirely on the producer.

“He went over the line . . . It wasn’t right,’’ replied Polito, adding that it was time to move on.

She has to say that. Whining about sexism is no way to win an election.

Supporters of Shannon O’Brien, the Democratic candidate for Massachusetts governor in 2002, accused Republican opponent Mitt Romney of sexism when he called her attacks during a debate “unbecoming.’’ Then US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton led a chorus of condemnation, noting that years ago women who wanted to run for office were called “unbecoming.’’ The complaints generated little sympathy for O’Brien, who lost to Romney, just as complaints about more even blatantly sexist treatment generated little sympathy for Clinton when she ran for president.

As the “Mad Men’’ fashion look is pitched anew to women, the cultural attitudes that ruled relationships between the sexes during that era don’t feel as distant as they should. Nor are they as entertaining in everyday life as they are on television.

When radio jocks can marginalize a female politician as a sexual object, when a hospital CEO can reward a special female friend in a workplace teeming with other women, it sends a message about behavior.

The bar is set low enough to accommodate real-life Don Drapers and what should be ancient history.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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