Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–To Jeanine Pirro, Patricia Dunn and Ann Baskins go the 2006 “Letty Awards” in the form of a one-foot high statuette of a woman with her hands over her eyes.

“Letty” stands for Letting Down the Side, and these women have just inspired me to coin the term. They have demonstrated exactly how not to act once you’ve moved past the glass ceiling. After all, since a lot of women shattered that ceiling by hurling brickbats at it year after year after year, those women who moved up through the cracks have some obligation to do the rest of us proud. We haven’t yet reached that critical mass of women in top jobs that permits merit to be the only qualification for the corner office. Until that happens, we expect those who occupy it to treat it with respect until the rest of us arrive.

At the very least, we demand, know the law, and don’t try to project the swooning innocence of a Victorian waif when you run afoul of it.

Repetitive Reminders for Pirro

Jeanine Pirro’s statuette comes with a mini-recorder inside that repeats over and over again, “Loose lips sink ships, loose lips . . . “

Pirro, a Republican, is running against Democrat Andrew Cuomo for attorney general, the top legal eagle of New York state. Reports recently surfaced of an ongoing federal investigation into whether she illegally recorded her husband’s conversations on the family’s boat last year to determine whether he was having an affair.

The bug on the boat could sink Pirro’s already trailing campaign like it was the Lusitania. The whole story came from wiretaps of Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police chief who was investigated for corruption last year. Those bugs picked up discussions he had with Pirro about bugging her husband.

Pirro says she thought better of bugging her spouse, didn’t do it, and was really after photos, not sound. “I was looking for pictures, OK?” she told Newsday. “And I didn’t do it in any event . . . I wanted proof. I wanted to know whether what I suspected was true. I made the decision not to do it, and that really is the end of it.”

Of course it’s not the end of it. She says the leaks about her came from federal prosecutors who convicted her husband Albert of tax evasion in 2000; he served 11 months in prison. That may be true, given New York’s penchant for bare-knuckled politics. Still, for someone wanting to be the Empire State’s top criminal watchdog, making such a bush-league misstep does not inspire confidence. (Andrew Cuomo and his ex-wife Kerry Kennedy made headlines some years ago with his allegations of her affair, but apparently nobody bugged anybody else and the two now claim they are friendly.)

Truman’s Motto for Dunn

The second Letty goes to Hewlett Packard chairwoman Patricia Dunn, for overseeing illegal spying on HP board members. HP operatives planted monitoring software in journalists’ e-mail and even hatched a plan for spies to infiltrate Silicon Valley newsrooms disguised as cleaners. Dunn’s statuette is engraved with the old Harry Truman motto “The Buck Stops Here.”

That’s exactly what Dunn does not understand. When members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked her to agree that what she had done was unethical, she refused to take responsibility. Florida Republican Cliff Stearns, obviously exasperated with her testimony, said: “I get the sense that you still don’t believe that you did anything wrong.”

She replied: “I do not accept personal responsibility for what happened.”

Where was she, on the Eastern Front? She was the chair of the company, and all this happened on her watch. But in the tradition of the late Ken Lay, of Enron, it was like she said, “Oh dear, I just didn’t know what was happening.”

“What were you thinking?” demanded Michigan Democrat John Dingell during the committee hearing. “There were red flags waving all over the place, but HP executives and attorneys ignored them.”

Dingell brought up the Watergate scandal, saying HP launched “a plumbers’ operation that would make Richard Nixon blush were he still alive.”

Five Fingers for Baskins

HP General Counsel Ann Baskins gets the third of the Letty awards for resigning before the committee convened. She then declined to make an opening statement or answer questions, invoking her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Her statuette is engraved with an etching of the hands of Frank Costello, the mobster whose digits were endlessly televised as he took the Fifth during the organized crime hearing of the 1950s.

What this proves, of course, is that men don’t have a monopoly on bad behavior in the boardroom or on the campaign trail. Even though women are sometimes letting down the side, maybe there is good news to be salvaged from these sad stories. The women, it seems, are not being treated differently from men in the same situations. There is no collective gasp of horror that a woman is capable of chicanery, and it seems there is no attempt to stigmatize these women beyond what might be done to men in the same situations.

This is a change from the days of Leona Helmsley. Remember her? She was the hotel magnate who wrote off her swimming pool and her home furnishings as tax deductions in the ’80s and was really nasty to the help. You’d have thought she was one of the great criminals of the age, judging by the media coverage she got. A TV movie made about her was titled “The Queen of Mean,” a Newsweek cover line about her blared, “Rhymes With Rich” and she got as stiff a jail sentence as junk bond king Michael Milken for what seemed to be a small-potatoes offense.

Let’s hope that in 2007 there are no nominees for the Letty, because research shows that women, overall, make good managers. “As Leaders, Women Rule,” announced Business Week in 2000, reporting on management studies from high-tech to manufacturing to consumer services companies. Female executives, when rated by peers, underlings and bosses, scored higher than their male counterparts on a wide variety of measures, from producing high quality work to goal-setting to mentoring employees.

“Women got higher ratings than men on almost every skill measured,” Business Week observed.

Caryl Rivers is the co-author, with Rosalind C. Barnett, of “Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs” (Basic Books 2004.)

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