Sexual harassment

For too long sexual harassment in the work place has been a serious -- and until recently, generally ignored -- problem for women. Since the first American farm girls went to work in the cotton mills of New England at the start of the industrial revolution, experience has led women workers to suppose that verbal and even physical abuse "came with the job." Until now, a female employee with the courage to challenge supervisors who demanded sexual favors in return for promotions or just keeping one's job had little reason to expect that the government or the law would be on her side.

That is why the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's new regulations explicitly prohibiting sexual harassment of employees by their supervisors will come as welcome news to many in the growing ranks of women joining the work force. The new rules, which apply to government and any private business employing more than 15 people, make clear that employers have an "affirmative duty" to prevent and eliminate such abuses.

The new federal guidelines, it is to be hoped, will encourage more women to resist the odious "boys will be boys" attitude that at a minimum is uncomfortable and at its worst is demeaning to women. Recent congressional testimony indicated that sexual harassment is hardly an isolated phenomenon affecting only a few workers. Because most women are reluctant to subject themselves to public embarrassment and the likely retaliation of employers, the problem is thought to be more serious than the number of formal complaints would suggest. In many instances, women who challenge such practices are labeled troublemakers, and their own moral character is called into question (much the same as with rape victims). Some are fired and, because of their "poor" work record, wind up being excluded from an entire industry.

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Still, in the face of such obstacles, the number of complaints hs risen. This is partly the result of the women's movement drawing attention to the problem. In the past fiscal year, the EEOC reported receiving 1,300 complaints. A recent survey of 198 female employees working for the federal government found 79 reported experiencing sexual harassment.

Federal courts have upheld sexual harassment as a civil rights violation. Under the new EEOC regulations, any employer found guilty of dismissing an employee for resisting sexual advances can be forced to award back pay, reinstate the employee, and promote the employee in accordance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The new federal guidelines specify that unlawful sexual harassment involves "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct" that are "explicitly or implicitly" made a condition of employment. Although the rules have been drawn up primarily to answer the complaints of women, they do apply equally to any male employee subjected to sexual intimidation and harassment on the job.

The government, in effect, is warning employers that they have the responsibility to create a work atmosphere that discourages such abuses. They should let supervisors and employees know that sexual harassment will not be condoned. Not only is it immoral. It is illegal. And if supervisors fail to get the message, workers now know Uncle Sam is on their side.

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