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A worldwide look at sexual harassment.

A worldwide look at sexual harassment

At issue was not only the guilt or innocence of the parties involved. The hearing also raised a question in many minds on how sexual harassment is actually perceived, or defined, in such a diverse cultural mix that reflects the U.S.' - and the world's - population.

Once the hearings were over, and heated discussions cooled, the heightened awareness remained; and, as communicators, we know we will be called upon to help our companies and clients deal with the harassment issue in the work place.

Here at CW, we immediately did a database search to find out how organizations in the U.S. and around the world are handling the issue of sexual harassment. We also contacted IABC friends and members around the globe to see what was going on in their countries. Here are some of the questions we posed:

* How do you define sexual harassment?

* What governmental statutes or legal requirements are in existence, if any, to deal with the problem?

* In your country, or environment, is sexual harassment considered a problem serious enough to have rules and guidelines for prevention or to take action if charges of harassment occur?

* Could you cite cases where an employee took legal action, or where a company involved in charges of this nature dealt with the situation internally? * What cultural practices considered normal in one country might be interpreted as harassment from someone of another culture? What guidelines should workers from one country follow when working in another country?

* Did the Thomas-Hill hearings in the U.S. spur any added interest or create a heightened awareness to implement any new, or to update programs in existence now? Or, if no program was in effect, did the hearings spur action to implement one?

European Community


A report from Paris by Susan Bell for Times Newspapers Ltd., says that France - following Spain's lead - has become the second country in the European Community to make sexual harassment at work a criminal offense. Offenders can now find themselves behind bars for up to a year, and face a fine of 100,000 francs.

The problem Bell sees is how sexual harassment should be defined - which, in our research, seems to be the leading question asked in every country, certainly not just in France.

"Should it be limited to bottom pinching and overt advances of a sexual nature? Or, should it be extended to include dirty jokes and centerfold pinups?" Bell adds, "Leaving feminists dissatisfied, the new clause in the French penal code defines it thus: |To solicit, by order, constraint or pressure, favours of a sexual nature from a subordinate at work.'" Bell says French women's groups complain this is vague and limited. "What about sexual harassment involving colleagues of equal rank, for example? And just how is |a favour of a sexual nature' to be defined?"

She adds that women's rights activists would like to see sexual harassment defined along the lines of the new European Community code adopted last July 3: "Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, or other conduct based on sex affecting the dignity of women and men at work, including unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct."

The European Commission also has suggested that employers and workers' representatives should meet to agree on a company policy statement banning sexual harassment, to elect a specially trained officer to deal with complaints, and to enforce appropriate disciplinary action.

South Africa not too

concerned with issue - yet

Pixie Malherbe, president of IABC/Southern Africa, responded with the following:

Given the topicality of the questions, South African women in business are singularly uninterested in the question of whether they have experienced sexual harassment, or have any strong feelings about it.

Phoning around, we spoke to a wide selection of women in senior positions and most of the answers were along the lines that surely women aren't so useless that they can't slap back?

Without exception none knew offhand whether there are any laws specifically relating to sexual harassment. Unfair dismissal is clearly covered under the labour laws - but sexual harassment is another question.

On the other hand, a Sunday newspaper quoted a Johannesburg sociologist as saying that sexual harassment is "incredibly common" but proving harassment is even more difficult than proving rape.

A university law professor, quoted in the same article, said that sexual harassment is usually interpreted by the law under a different name - possibly indecent assault or crimen injuria, which is crime against dignity and reputation. A lawyer added that interpretation of harassment is subjective. What one woman may deem as good office fun, another may find offensive.

Last year no cases were reported in South Africa, but companies are reticent to comment on what internal complaints they have handled. It also becomes a minefield for companies that have to contend with labour laws, industrial courts, unfair dismissal suits and the like.

As one personnel officer said: "I think sexual harassment comes into the class of crimes which depends on one's own experience, morality and attitude to life. We certainly have our fair share of complaints - but men will be men, and I sometimes think it is exaggerated to hell."

This is certainly a popular viewpoint, and one held by many companies, if the comments we were able to solicit are representative of the majority.

In terms of cultural practices, the most common in South Africa is the ubiquitous wolf whistle. Let any woman walk past any building site and she is likely to be subjected to a wild cacophony of wolf whistles. Most women though, would take that good naturedly, and - probably without admitting it - enjoy the moment.

But no, there are no other cultural idiosyncrasies that would frighten foreign women here!

Mexican culture seems

to accept harassment

Monica Sierra Vasavilbaso, internal communication coordinator, institutional communication, Universidad Anahuac in Mexico City, offered the following insight on how harassment is perceived in her country:

The sexual harassment problem exists in Mexico City, its organizations and institutions, just as it does in the U.S., England, Spain or other parts of the world. Harassment usually occurs between the organization's boss and woman employee where the boss offers a better job or a promotion to his subordinate in exchange for sexual favors.

Sexual harassment has been recognized as a problem, but is accepted in our culture where many men consider themselves superior over women, and often do not extend opportunities and basic rights to them (machismo). As in many other parts of the world, women, through the years, are less visible and have been subordinate in the work force. Nevertheless, countries and organizations are becoming more aware of the importance of women's role in the work force, and about women's struggle to become recognized as capable and to enjoy equal opportunities as men. This awareness applies also to our country, Mexico.

In our Mexican organizations, various types of behavior are fairly common and might be considered as sexual harassment by a U.S. employee. Frequently a Mexican man will say nice things to a woman about the way she dresses, talks, acts or thinks, and this is considered a culturally appropriate way of relating between men and women (piropo). Mexican women are accustomed to playing this attraction game and are aware of its consequences.

Also, as we mentioned above, women are sometimes offered a better job position, a job promotion or higher salary, in exchange for having a sexual relationship with the boss. However, there are many occasions where women reject this type of proposition because they are not interested, or don't see any need to play along. But in other situations, women are forced to accept a proposition because, unfortunately, they have no other option and they need money or the job desperately.

New awareness in Japan

Commenting on sexual harassment in Japan is Steven R. Weisman, in a special report to the New York Times:

"A few years ago, virtually no one in Japan had heard of sexual harassment. Indeed, the appropriation of the term from English demonstrates to some feminists how alien the concept is from Japanese traditions, in which sexual approaches to women in the work place are often considered acceptable." He adds that today Japanese lawyers and feminists have brought sexual harassment to the forefront "with a flurry of surveys, studies, articles, legal actions, conferences and organizing."

According to Japan's Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Japan's version of The Wall Street Journal), sexual harassment of women at work, now regarded by some legal experts as a widespread problem, started gaining increasing attention in Japan since enactment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in April 1986.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, other local governments and regional bar associations have set up offices and call-in lines to handle complaints of sexual harassment. The Osaka Bar Association, for example, offers a call-in advisory service for two hours on the second Thursday of the month. Japan's Ministry of Labor plans to run a major campaign against sexual harassment in the work place. The ministry will establish a study group and publish manuals on appropriate behavior in the work place. It also intends to look at how the problem is dealt with overseas with a view toward setting up guidelines for corporations in Japan.

Australian media campaign

targets harassment issue

In Australia, a recent national survey reports that one in four Australian women suffered sexual harassment at work, and nearly 20 percent subsequently left their jobs. The survey showed that seven out of 10 women believed sexual harassment in the work place was common and 32 percent felt that young women were particularly at risk. Federal sex discrimination commissioner Quentin Bryce was quoted as saying, "bosses are nearly always the harassers." She said that the survey and subsequent follow-up campaign which was launched was triggered by an alarming increase in the number of complaints and inquiries from young women. The survey revealed that 72 percent of women had heard of Australia's sex discrimination act, but only six percent knew the act could be used to prevent sexual harassment. An Australian $250,000 dollar print and radio campaign titled "Shout - Sexual Harassment Is Out," targeted young women, who were the most vulnerable group, "Its theme is that sexual harassment at work is against the law and that young women should speak out," said Bryce.

U.K. women find

legal system as harassing

as work-place harassers

In the U.K., nearly 100 cases of sexual harassment have gone to tribunals since 1986, according to Clare Dyer, in a report to the Guardian. "But these are just the tip of the iceberg," according to the Equal Opportunities Commission. "Many, like law professor Anita Hill's allegations against Supreme Court nominee Judge Clarence Thomas, involve only verbal harassment. Most are settled out of court to avoid headlines. The commission, which backs about a dozen cases each year, received 463 complaints of harassment between January 1990 and May 1991. For something which does not officially exist as a concept in English law, sexual harassment is a booming field. It was not until the mid-1980s that lawyers successfully argued that harassment was a form of sexual discrimination, opening the way for a steady flow of cases to industrial tribunals," says Dyer. "A 10,000 [pounds] ceiling is set for industrial tribunal awards; not much compensation where a woman is forced to quit a well-paid job, or is sacked after refusing her employer's overtures. If she keeps her job, awards are limited to injury in feelings, usually worth up to 2,000 [pounds]."

"An increasing number of the big 100 companies in the U.K. are becoming sensitive to the issue," says U.K. solicitor Denise Kingsmill, who broke new ground when she brought the first sexual harassment case on behalf of a 35,000 [pounds]-a-year advertising director who accused her boss of sexual bullying. The company settled out of court for 25,000 [pounds] plus the same amount in legal costs. Kingsmill adds, "High-earning women who suffer unwanted advances can get around the 10,000 [pounds] ceiling by launching a High Court action for assault. But persistent requests for dates or being turned down for promotion because you rejected the boss' advances wouldn't work in the High Court. You've got to have something physical. The European Commission (EC) is expected to bring out a code of conduct by the end of the year. An EC resolution last year reminds employers to try to keep work places free from |unwanted conduct of a sexual nature ....'"

Two U.S. companies lead

the way in programs

In the U.S., several companies were cited as being on the forefront in dealing with sexual harassment in the work place. One is the Du Pont Co. in Newark, Del. Faith Wohl, director of work force partnering, corporate human resources, told us that in 1981 they started a training program for supervisors based on federal guidelines (see sidebar) regarding sexual harassment. In 1985, following an incident where one of the female sales staff was attacked and raped by a client, the company created the Personal Safety Program. This was a full-day training session to equip employees to deal with rape and sexual harassment, and to help managers in the company prevent dangerous situations. A safe place was created for women to learn self-defense tactics and to discuss fears. In the course of the training, the company found that there were a lot of women anxious to talk about their everyday experiences with sexual harassment.

"A 24-hour confidential hotline also was established in 1985 for employees to call for legal or medical assistance from the company or just to talk with one of the hotline staffers trained in crisis intervention. The hotline receives a lot of calls from people about sexual harassment: Managers call the hotline to check out a situation, or a colleague will call to share observations and ask questions," says Wohl. "And a woman herself will call when she's trying to sort things out, saying |Am I crazy here, or is this sexual harassment?' People call when they're not initiating a formal investigation."

All formal complaints are thoroughly and strictly investigated, and the company will take punitive action against offenders if necessary, including demotion, suspension and even dismissal. "And we have dismissed some high-level people." Wohl says all of this is kept strictly confidential; DuPont doesn't keep records about the hotline. "I do know that the number of hotline calls has been rising over the last two years, which I think says a lot for the success of the training and for people's faith in the company's system. At the same time, the number of incidents taken outside the company - to lawyers, arbitrators, etc. - has dropped."

In 1988 another program was launched called A Matter of Respect. This program was prompted because of the response through the Personal Safety Program by women who wanted to talk about their sexual harassment experiences. The new program is for all employees, and focuses on creating a respectful environment for everyone. Wohl says, "Each training session is led by one man and one woman. The group, of about two dozen men and women, is shown a video. Participants then discuss their reactions to the situations shown, and share how the world looks from their very different cultural frameworks. This program, then, was not designed so much for communicating regulations and rules, but for prevention. Sometimes the discussions get very painful and heated, but we try to see them happen in a safe and sensitive environment and give people a place to be honest about their experiences." Wohl adds that one of the main things they teach is that it's not the intent but the effect - "We say, |You have to own the effect.'"

A Matter of Respect is a four-hour program, and more than 70,000 employees have gone through it. The program is led by 450 facilitators, each of whom goes through an intensive, three-day training program. Employees in different departments are trained to be facilitators, so that employees have resources in their own areas. The external affairs office has trained facilitators, but has no more role in the training than does any other department.

At Du Pont the program is part of the work force partnering department, which is also responsible for programs on affirmative action, diversity education, work and family, and the investigative unit.

AT&T finds increased

awareness of sexual

harassment policies

AT&T also has been on the forefront in establishing and enforcing sexual harassment policies in the work place for more than a decade. The company's policy, discussed with employees annually, clearly states that staffers can be fired for repeated "unwelcome sexual flirtations," using sexually degrading words to describe someone or displaying sexually suggestive pictures or objects at work.

However, the company no longer offers employees separate training about sexual harassment as they did in the 1980s. Burke Stinson, an AT&T spokesman, says: "Harassment is now among several topics covered in voluntary classes about work-place diversity. We thought it would have more impact." As for re-instituting additional policies or employee programs, Stinson says he doesn't anticipate any change. "Our program goes back 15, 16 years or so. We revamped it in the '80s after the law said harassment wasn't confined to touching and feeling, but also included the work place environment. We feel the program now is well thought-out and established.

"The impact of the Thomas-Hill hearings is more in relation to employees knowing and hearing we have a solid policy, but perhaps didn't know where it was, or how to find out about taking courses in diversity programs, equal employment and affirmative action that are exclusive to AT&T." Stinson adds that he's seen no dramatic increase in people signing up or requesting programs, but he has seen an increase in awareness.

World media has mixed


We are finding that the U.S. media are responding to the sexual harassment issues raised by the Thomas-Hill hearings from every possible angle; and certainly questions are being asked and explored as never before on this work place issue - what it is, and how to deal with it.

Other comments from outside the U.S. are mixed, though. In a Wall Street Journal article by David Brooks, he says, "In general, Europeans find the Thomas hearings revolting. Asked whether such a spectacle ever had occurred in Europe, the BBC's Washington correspondent Gavin Essler said, |not since they used to bait bears in the Middle Ages.' The focus of the opinions seemed to be based more on the hearings themselves, not the issue of sexual harassment. "Though there is certainly no consensus, many more people in Europe feel that even if Mr. Thomas did everything that is alleged, it still has no relevance to his fitness as a Supreme Court nominee," adds Brooks.

And, in other discussions, the generation factor came up. Perhaps what might be interpreted by daughters as harassment today may have been something just accepted by their mothers in another era?

The conclusion? If there is a positive side to the media saturation of the Thomas-Hill hearings, it is that they brought to the world's attention a subject that many are concerned about, but until now, may not have wanted to confront. It's unfortunate that two lives had to go through the intense public scrutiny that Hill and Thomas had to experience, though. Surely there must be a better way. As communicators, we can - and must - find it.

Gloria Gordon is editor, Communication World and VP, communication. Assistant editor Rise Keller assisted in research and preparation for this article.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Gordon, Gloria
Publication:Communication World
Date:Dec 1, 1991
Previous Article:We asked. You told us what you need. We listened.
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