Sexual harassment: a continuing employment challenge

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.

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.

Galen Martin, executive director of the Kentucky Human Rights Commission, notes a lessening of the harassment in the mines that have been opened to women the longest. ''There are some better attitudes in some places, as they get used to having women there. The unions are helping - the women are being treated as 'sisters' the way union members usually treat each other as brothers. Also, he says, ''Women are getting a better feel for their own roles,'' a sense of confidence that does much to disperse harassment, he feels.

Still, he notes, ''This is not the Promised Land.''

Why do the women stick it out? ''Money,'' says Ms. Hall, ''plain and simple. A woman can make two to three times as much as she can waitressing or working in a sewing factory.''

This willingness to stick it out thwarts what many perceive as the ultimate purpose of sexual harassment: ''It's a tool to get women out of the workplace,'' says research director Crull, ''and it works really well.''

Sex is also used as a tool to get people into the workplace, a personnel manager of a large government office in the Midwest says: ''Especially during a recession, I'll have young women come in here and indicate that they'd be willing to (trade sexual favors) for a job.''

''Actually, using sex to get ahead almost always backfires for the woman and can be devastating to her career,'' says Dr. Crull. ''What does the boss do with you when he's through with you? He doesn't want you around to embarrass him , so he'll usually demote you, or try to get you to quit, or find an excuse to fire you.''

Professor Boles found in her recent survey of 400 companies around the country that most people are able to brush off harassment when it comes from ''those without power, like a co-worker. It's when she perceives that the perpetrator has power over her'' that the victim takes it to heart, she says.

In fact, according to perhaps the most thorough survey conducted on this subject to date (by the Merit Systems Protection Board in 1981), most harassers are co-workers rather than supervisors. And only 2 to 3 percent of the victims make a formal complaint, says Cynthia Shaughnessey, project director of the survey. That survey also dispelled the myth that this is strictly a woman's problem. Fifteen percent of the victims are male, says Ms. Shaughnessey - most of those harassed by females.

''One thing we're sure of,'' says Dr. Crull, whose organization has counseled hundreds of sexual harassment victims in the New York City area, ''if you try to ignore it, it will escalate. So you might as well try and do something.''

That ''something'' has been the subject of many articles, suggesting everything from switching jobs to complaining to your union official or supervisor and taking the case to the EEOC. ''Of course, often the union official or supervisor is the very person doing the harassing,'' Dr. Crull says.

Most advise the victim to do something quietly at first, explaining to the harasser exactly how distasteful she finds the treatment and giving him a graceful way out. ''Feminists don't like it when I say this,'' says Professor Boles, ''but a man's pride is involved, and if you hurt his pride, he'll try and get even.''

Then there are those who advise going to the opposite extreme to avoid harassment, by squelching any office romance. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, senior editor Eliza Collins writes: ''Love threatens the organization's stability. Love between managers is dangerous because it challenges - and can break down - the organizational structure.''

Dr. Crull says, ''We're not against (love), but we do think people should be very careful before entering any office liaison, and think how it will affect your careers while it's going on, and when it's over.''

Finally, in any sex-related situation, Dr. Crull advises, ''Stick up for your principles.'' That, she's found, is the most successful method for handling it in the long run.

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