Ruling Out Sexual Harassment

SEXUAL harassment in the workplace takes many forms. Sometimes it is verbal, involving suggestive comments, lewd jokes, or offensive teasing. Other times it is physical, including squeezes, hugs, and explicit sexual advances. Now a Florida judge has determined that it can also be visual. In a suit brought by a female welder against Jacksonville Shipyards Inc., US District Judge Howell Melton ruled that 30 nude and seminude photos of women posted at the shipyard constituted a ``visual assault on the sensibilities'' of female employees.

The American Civil Liberties Union cautions that the decision might violate First Amendment rights. But women's rights advocates are hailing it as ``a groundbreaking opinion,'' especially for women working in male-dominated trades.

Judge Melton's ruling serves as the latest encouraging example of growing sensitivity to women's rights in the workplace. Last fall, Harvard Law School established a committee to develop a policy on sexual harassment. The American Bar Association's commission on women in the legal profession has drafted a model code of conduct. And last year the Navy ordered a task force to review policies and address issues of sexual harassment.

Elsewhere, the Labor Ministry in Japan is conducting a nationwide survey and plans to prepare corporate guidelines on the subject. And in France, the National Assembly is working on legislation to make sexual harassment punishable.

These efforts send messages to workers and bosses alike that sexual harassment cannot be trivialized - or tolerated. As Judge Melton wrote, ``A preexisting atmosphere that deters women from entering or continuing in a profession or job is no less destructive to and offensive to workplace equality than a sign declaring `men only.'''

Removing those invisible `men only' signs and making offices, factories, even shipyards more hospitable places for working women remains an urgent task for employers everywhere in the 1990s.

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