Company programs try to combat perils faced by female employees
Washington — Margo and Carl stand outside Margo's hotel room. Margo is tired, but Carl thinks they should go over the presentation one more time. ``You know, Margo, you're living in a fantasy world,'' Carl says. ``You have to work to get ahead, especially if you're a woman.''
She relents, lets him into her room, and it quickly become clear that business is not uppermost in Carl's mind.
The video clicks off and lights go on. The dozen women watching it make a few rye comments about Carl. But the scenario strikes an uncomfortable chord for the women at the Du Pont Company's rape prevention workshop. One woman (not a Du Pont employee) confides that she was similarly pressured by one of her managers at a cocktail party, a manager who had influence over her career path. As women climb the corporate ladder, a growing number are being exposed to the risk of violence and rape on company time. Women in sales, marketing, and management positions must travel and be in frequent contact with colleagues, customers, and strangers. This adds a new, more dangerous dimension to the old problem of sexual harassment, and it is causing companies to look with added urgency for ways to protect their female employees.
One reason is legal. Last summer, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a company can be held liable for sexual harassment even if management was unaware that the harassment was going on.
``Companies have put their managers on notice that sexual harassment won't be tolerated,'' says Lauren L. Joichin, a staff attorney for the Women's Equity Action League. ``They want to reduce their legal liability, make themselves as immune as possible, because the courts have made it clear that women can sue.''
Between 1981 and '85, the number of sexual-harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission nearly doubled, from 4,272 to 7,273. The EEOC expects to find a big jump in 1986 because of the publicity of the Supreme Court case.
Faced with the growing number of lawsuits and the greater likelihood of losing, hundreds of firms have instituted ``education programs'' about sexual harassment. Generally these consist of two-hour workshops, often with videos to the legal line between ``friendliness'' and harassment.
Many of the men who go through Philip Morris's 90-minute workshop are surprised that their actions - language, double-entendres, an arm around the shoulder of a female subordinate - verge on sexual harassment, says Brian Horan, director of employee relations.
``A lot of this stuff is on the line,'' he says. ``And often the women won't say anything,'' especially if they fear retaliation, ``so the men will think they're being encouraged.''
The workshop, which was put in place two years ago, is mandatory for all managers in the field; about 600 have gone through. Eventually, Mr. Horan says, all employees will take the course.
The number of complaints for sexual harassment has dropped from five or six a year to perhaps two. The lesson has been driven home not just by the workshop but also by the seven or eight firings that have occurred because of sexual harassment over the last five years.
Merck & Co.'s workshop is similar to Philip Morris's. Employees watch videos of different scenarios - on the production line, making sales calls, in management situations - where sexual harassment is occurring. ``They answer questions about the situation'' - whether they think harassment is present or not - ``and then we tell them how the law would look at the situation,'' says spokesman Roger Smith.
``Most people don't know what sexual harassment is,'' says Elizabeth Moser of Learning International. Her company produced ``Shades of Grey,'' a video bought by more than 100 companies. ``If someone asks you out for a drink, that may be perfectly acceptable. But if the boss who's making a promotion decision asks you out, that could be perceived as harassment,'' she says.
Sexual harassment also affects the bottom line by increasing absenteeism and turnover. ``Often women just quit to avoid the situation,'' says Ms. Moser. Since it costs about $12,000 to train a new secretary and $35,000 to $40,000 to train a new manager, ``sexual harassment is very expensive,'' she says.
Concern over violence or sexual assault - coming from a customer or a stranger when one is traveling, for example, where the company cannot police it - takes its toll on employees' work.
``If a saleswoman is going out there and a customer accosts her, she's not concerned about selling that product,'' says Mary Lou Arey, who heads Du Pont's rape prevention workshop. ``She's concerned about her personal safety.''
That point was driven home about five years ago when a Du Pont saleswoman was raped by a customer. Over the next two years, Du Pont developed a workshop on rape prevention for its 400 marketing and saleswomen. Today, the eight-hour workshop, which cost $500,000 to develop, is open to all 22,000 female employees. About 2,500 have gone through, and another 7,400 are expected to attend by the end of the year.
It is not a typical workshop. At the end of the day, a dozen participants are found shouting ``Stop!'' and punching an imaginary assailant in the nose, kicking him in the knee, stomping on his foot. Most of the time, however, is spent talking about ways to avoid dangerous situations and to protect oneself. The workshop draws heavily on research about violence (summary above).
More than 100 companies employing tens of thousands of women nationwide have asked Du Pont to sell the program. Du Pont is testing the program in two major corporations and soon will decide whether to sell it.
There are already about 600 community rape crisis centers around the country. They are often poorly funded, however, and may not reach the new class of woman that is so vulnerable - the young professional.
``To the extent that Du Pont is doing this program and doing it well, it is filling a gap that's existed in corporate America,'' says Ms. Joichin. ``I'm very encouraged.''
Myths, facts about rape
To figure out the best response to a sexual assault, Du Pont has done extensive research into the motives and pattern of such assaults. The following are some of its findings, as culled from government statistics, criminal records, psychologists' research, victims' reports, and other sources.
Myth: Trying to fight off an assailant provokes him to further violence, so it is better to submit.
Findings: More than half of the victims who fight back escape. Assailants are looking for a victim who will submit easily. The attacker often will give up if the victim yells and forcefully resists.
Myth: Most rapists carry weapons and often kill the victim.
Findings: Some 30 percent of assailants carry weapons and use them to force the victim to submit. Less than 2 percent of reported rapes end in murder.
Myth: Women ``ask for rape'' by their clothing, behavior, or activity.
Findings: Three-fourths of rapes are planned, not spur-of-the-moment. Rapist do not choose victims on the basis of attractiveness, but on accessibility and vulnerability. The assailant often chooses his victim after ``testing'' her - asking her questions, walking close to her, etc. If a woman reacts assertively, cutting off the conversation or walking away decisively, the attacker is less likely to choose that person as a victim.
Myth: Most rapes are interracial.
Findings: Only 10 percent of reported rapes are interracial. Most often, assailants attack women who are of their own racial, ethnic, and class background.
Myth: The rapist is almost always a stranger.
Findings: According to Justice Department surveys, one-third of the victims knew their assailants.
Myth: Most rapes occur after dark and in large cities.
Findings: Studies show that up to 50 percent of rapes occur in and around the victim's home and at all hours of the day.