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Sexual harassment: a continuing employment challenge

By Deborah ChurchmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 9, 1984

I said no, I simply was not going out with him after work and, no, I simply was not going to have an affair with him, because I thought I could rely on my job skills. . . . I was fired with 25 minutes' notice on a Friday.m From House of Representatives hearings on sexual harassment in the federal government.

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Sexual harassment certainly predates those 1979 hearings. References to its devastating effects show up in the writings of many, like Louisa May Alcott. She suffered a bout when she went into service to help support her family. And there's Joseph in the Bible, cast into prison when he wouldn't lie with his master's wife.

Recently, under the hothouse glare of media attention, reported incidents of such harassment have greatly increased. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which defined sexual harassment in 1980, reviewed 4,195 charges of such abuse last year - up from nearly 3,500 cases the year before. A survey in 1976 by Redbook Magazine found nearly 9 out of every 10 respondents had experienced some sort of harassment, and 42 percent of the more than 20,000 federal employees responding to a 1981 survey said they had experienced it in the last two years.

Much of the increase may be due to increased reporting of an ongoing phenomenon. But many experts believe there have been real increases in the number of such incidents as the numbers of women in the work force increase both interaction between the genders and the opportunity for harassment.

Several court cases from the late 1970s have encouraged victims to take legal action against their harassers. In a number of cases, such action has helped make a particular work environment far more sensitive to the problem.

Pats, touching, jokes, lewd comments, and demands for sexual favors all fall into the realm of sexual harassment. But the EEOC defines these as abuse only if they affect employment - if, for example, the employee is told that a raise or a job will come in exchange for sexual favors, or that refusal to grant these favors will affect the employee's job security.

The typical case, says Peggy Crull, research director of the Working Women's Institute, who has studied the issue over the last eight years, is one of a male harassing a subordinate female. ''There are sexual feelings here, we can't totally dismiss that,'' she says in her soft Tennessee accent. ''But mostly it's a question of power. Either the man isn't powerful and (uses harassment) to make himself feel like he is,'' she reports, ''or he is in a powerful position and just expects that women are part of the benefits.''

Harassment is often at its worst in fields where women have traditionally not participated - like coal miners or doctors, Dr. Crull says. ''There are a lot of gross jokes told around female interns. But I think the women coal miners have had it the worst.''

Betty Jean Hall, director of the Coal Employment Project - a nonprofit support group for female coal miners - traces the pattern of sexual harassment that has beset these women in the 10 years since they first started mining. At first, she says, there was a sudden renewing of ''initiation rites,'' in which a new miner must be stripped and greased before entering the mines - until one woman took the company to court and won $2,000. Then, there were overly thorough ''cigarette searches'' before entering the mines; now, there are three cases pending against miners who drilled ''peepholes'' in the women's showers, behavior Ms. Hall calls ''juvenile.''

Jacqueline Boles, a sociologist at Georgia State University who has conducted several surveys of sexual harassment, reports that sociologists have long observed that in certain arduous, low-status jobs - like garbage collecting or coal mining - a sense of honor develops ''which says that they are special to be able to do this work. Lily-white office workers can't do it, women can't do it, nobody can do it but them because they're strong, they're tough, they're special ,'' she explains. ''And then these women come, and lo and behold, they can do it. So the men have to admit that they're not so tough after all. You can almost sympathize with them - it must be very hard on their pride,'' she explains.