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Parenthood, harassment, and other workplace distractions.

How well can women in the lab balance work and family life? Are they treated courteously? Panelists' revelations may surprise you.

As a predominantly female environment, the clinical laboratory is the workplace of a large number of pregnant women and their sequels, working mothers. Gestational risks, maternity leave, work schedules, child care arrangements, and related issues are therefore of great importance to many thousands of lab employees--and to their supervisors and colleagues.

Most respondents (73%) to the MLO survey are married or living with a partner. Reporting themselves as single and not living with a partner are 14%, while 11% are separated or divorced and 3% are widowed. (The total exceeds 100% due to rounding.) Many of the problems related to work versus home life debated by respondents are the same as those of supervisors who participated in a roundtable discussion held by MLO more than 13 years ago(*1) -- as they may always be.

"The lab is a great job for a woman," asserts the administrative coordinator of a group practice lab in Illinois who says she chose lab work for its flexible hours. "We have several working moms here and we take turns covering for each other." A section supervisor and mother from Washington State agrees: "Nights, weekends, and on-call are always available for the mother who needs them." That advantage may be dissipating, offers a senior technologist at a Midwestern referral lab: "This used to be a prime field for women because of the flexibility it offered, but that changing. If you are gone for any amount of time, the technologies change so fast that it's hard to keep up."

A histotechnologist in a Midwestern suburb says she held her former job for 17 years. "I had three children during that time. During each maternity leave I was told my job might not be there when I returned. Fortunately, it was--but during my last leave, to have a hysterectomy for cancer, the position got filled. In my opinion that was a blatant violation of my civil rights."

Women often make the mistake of treating their careers as second jobs, says MLO "Viewpoint" columnist James Maratea. One employee he counseled about absenteeism explained that her child was frequently ill. "I asked, 'Why can't your husband share this responsibility?'" Maratea recalls. "'He works,' she said."

As a consultant, says Annamarie Barros, "I strongly encourage labs to permit job sharing. Other parts of the hospital are breaking away from traditional hours; labs must follow suit" as a hedge against the shortage.

Only with mutual give-and-take and equal commitment from employee and employer can job sharing and flextime work well, warns Marian J. Cavagnaro, M.S., MT(ASCP)DLM, chief technologiest in hematology at Memorial Hospital, Hollywood, Fla. "Unfortunately," she says, "problems often fall back on the employer when an employee backs out on an arrangement after other employees' schedules have been rearranged."

* Parenthood. A medical technologist on the West Coast says the only gender-related difficulty at her independent lab is "a feeling, never stated, that getting pregnant is not favorable to the working environment. This feeling came to me during both my pregnancies from my supervisor, who is a woman and probably more sympathetic than a man--but still probably would be glad if we all had hysterectomies."

Lack of empathy with working mothers is not restricted to men. "Female managers and supervisors without children have been less sympathetic to family crises and difficulties than their male counterparts," says a longtime section supervisor in Michigan. "I do not believe gender plays as big a role as experience. If you have encountered the same problem yourself, you are more likely to sympathize and offer valid suggestions and alternatives to an employee."

A chemistry supervisor in Iowa notes frankly that making allowances for employees' family duties can eat into the workday. "As a manager, I am often frustrated when our schedule falls apart for sick kids, dance recitals, and maternity leave in vacation season," she says. "While women are hardworking and usually very reliable, men create fewer problems. They also do not get the phone calls at work from their kids that the moms do."

An assistant chief technologist in the South says, "The Government allows NO flexibility for job sharing or flextime. This is a detriment to the family and also to the VA because women will work at companies that provide those benefits. I work within regulations as much as possible while allowing employees time for family-related needs, but many old, outdated regulations limit my options. As the recession continues or worsens, I believe more women with young children will be forced to seek gainful employment."

"Years ago," says Barros, "I got extremely annoyed and frustrated when mommies went off on maternity leave or left work early. But as I later came to realize, that's life!" Since mothers of young children constitute a considerable portion of the lab staff, they must be accommodated, she has concluded.

* Pregnancy. For the most part, supervisors at panelists' labs do not discuss potential gestational dangers with employees. Such dangers are not discussed with pregnant workers in 62% of panelists' labs. Supervisors are more likely to discuss such dangers with pregnant employees (23%) than with all employees (18%), female employees of reproductive age (13%), or all female employees (12%).

Are special precautions taken to permit pregnant women to avoid exposure to the dangerous chemicals used in labs? Response on this point was split, with 47% saying yes, 44% saying no, and 10% unsure. Are special precautions taken to prevent pregnant women's exposure to radioimmunoassays (RIAs)? Slightly more so: 45% said yes, 39% said no, and 16% were unsure. In most cases (73%), no special precautions are taken to enable pregnant women to avoid working at video display terminals (VDTs).

* Maternity leave. Respondents' labs offer employees an average of 7 weeks of paid maternity leave and 10 weeks of unpaid leave. (The latter figure includes some labs that offer no paid leave.) Half of respondents (50%) consider the maternity time offered at their facilities adequate; of these, such a benefit was found adequate by only 38% of the workers most likely to use it: those who have been working for 15 years or less. Overall, one-third (34%) of respondents find their institutions' maternity leaves inadequate; 8% have no opinion; and another 8% are unsure. Figure I ranks the availability of various benefits of particular interest to women.

* Child care. The quality and proximity of child care affect the entire outlook of most women with young children. A case in point is the medical technologist of 30 years' standing who reports, "The most satisfactory jobs I ever had were the ones with on-site child care, when I had preschool children."

More than half of respondents (56%) have children living at home. Among this group, 30% have children who are under 5 years old, 40% have children who are 5 to 10 years old, 33% have children who are 11 to 14, and 39% have children who are 15 or older. (Multiple responses were accepted.)

Asked whether the availability of top-notch child care benefits at a lab would entice them to work for that lab, a substantial two out of five (42%) of all respondents said yes (Figure II). Excellent child care was of greater interest to workers in hospital labs (44%) than to those in independent and group practice labs (33%).

What happens when the child's school or caretaker calls to say illness has struck? Six out of 10 (59) of all respondents said it is "not at all difficult" to leave work before the end of a shift to attend to a sick child. For 36%, leaving is "somewhat difficult," whereas it is "virtually impossible" for 3%, and 2% were unsure.

Child care availability "has to be addressed," insists a staff technologist in the Midwest who has no children living at home. "I cannot believe that hospitals, especially, have not been the leaders in this area, with their high number of female employees. It's appalling!"

* Years of service. Three out of four panelists (76%) said they have worked in labs with no break. Nearly one-fourth (24%) reported nonconsecutive employment (at least six months away from work). Hospital laboratorians were more likely to work consecutive years than were those employed by independent or group practice labs (78% vs. 68%, respectively).

Do labs grant women managers some slack during their child-rearing years without forcing them to derail their careers, as recommended in the much-debated "mommy track" article in the Harvard Business Review?(*2) This varies. Women who switch from full-time to part-time work to care for their children "are treated very differently" at her Indiana hospital, says a full-time medical technologist who has no children herself. Such employees "are somewhat discriminated against by not being sent to educational programs or being given a set schedule, even if there are more than two part-timers in a department who could split the week."

In nearly half (45%) of panelists' labs, all part-time workers are female. (The median was 94% and the mean, 86%.) "I feel the most overlooked and underappreciated employee in the lab is the part-time worker, usually women," writes a medical technologist from Michigan. "Often taken for granted or not given 'real' responsibilities, the part-time worker probably contributes more to the lab per hour than a full-time employee. The part-timer has more time away from the job to diffuse stress and does not get overly involved in 'politics.' When part-timers come to work, they are ready and refreshed to WORK! They also take the higher percentage of time worked as weekends and holidays and are called to work extra during vacation times."

The long-term effect of leaves of absence on earnings continues to spark study. Two economists recently calculated that "when women re-enter the labor market, their earnings are much lower than those of a comparable group" of women who took no break. "Over time, that gap diminishes, but never disappears, even after as long as 20 years."(*3) The researchers studied 2,426 working women who had taken leaves of absence from work that were longer than routine maternity leave and shorter than six months.

* Sexual harassment. Panelists' responses regarding sexual harassment are shocking. Nearly one-third (30%) say they have personally been sexually harassed in a laboratory job (Figure III). Only half (51%) said they have neither had nor heard of such experiences.

These figures are not out of line with what one might expect in a corporate work environment outside health care, where a few female managers work among many men. In a predominantly female enclave, however, the numbers seem extraordinary.

Readers were asked, "In the most serious case you know of, was the victim a man or a woman?" They reported that 97% of the time, the victim was female. Was the harasser in a more powerful position than the victim? Usually, but not always. While this was true in 81% of cases, it was not so in 16%, and 3% were unsure.

"It is commonplace for males to harass females in the lab," writes a chemistry supervisor in Texas. "Mostly, females ignore it." If a woman does complain, she adds, the men call her names and resist cooperating. "So we tolerate it--everything from pats on the head to being called 'sweetie' to much worse," she says, adding, "Can you see the 'old boys' at the IBM corporate office calling their female coworkers 'sweetie'?"

The following situation was reported not in the Middle Ages, but a few months ago, by a histotechnologist in the Midwest. The physician in charge of her VA hospital lab harasses the staff mercilessly, she claims. "Morale is low in the entire lab essentially because of one person and his various actions over the past 13 years," the panelist fumes. "Although he has been reported a number of times, and actions were filed two years ago, he still seems to come off free, even with handwritten notes against him. It gives you a real sense of the lack of justice in the Government system."

That's an extreme case, of course. Some men may fail to recognize that their behavior, such as telling off-color jokes, constitutes harassment, suggests a chief medical technologist at an Indiana hospital. Increased openness will help, she believes: "I'm glad more is coming out about this everywhere."

A medical technologist at a military medical center in Washington, D.C., finds that male supervisors hesitate to correct female employees for fear of being charged with sex discrimination, whereas women supervisors correct any employee when appropriate. The same respondent notes the dark side of maintaining an anti-harassment atmosphere: "I have also seen women employees take advantage of their male supervisors by threatening to bring charges of sexual harassment."

The question of definition arises. "Harassment comes in many forms," a longtime section supervisor points out. "Undercutting"--verbal belittling rather than touching or outright attack--"is not easily seen by others and cannot be addressed" in the same way.

MLO Editorial Advisory Board member Dan Baer, M.D., chief of pathology at the VA Medical Center in Portland, Ore., has dealth with about five cases of harassment in the last few years, he told MLO. Multiple reports about several of the same men came to light when it was learned that someone had complained.

Addressing the problem immediately each time, Dr. Baer says, he has found the accused harassers surprised that their behavior had been considered offensive: "They tend to say, 'Where I grew up, it was all right to say that.'" In one case the man said he had thought he was comforting the woman; all said they had acted out of "affection" for their female coworkers. Nevertheless, once confronted, they all stopped immediately. Such instant success suggests that educating employees about what constitutes harassment would benefit laboratories overall, as a number of panelists suggest.

* Action taken. How readers coped with instances of sexual harassment follows traditional lines: They were more likely to avoid offenders than to confront them, and less likely to report the incident than to do either (Figure III). A longtime laboratorian who is a section supervisor in a Florida hospital summarizes her views: "Sexual harassment is very prevalent in the workplace. I have been a victim many times. Why not come forward? Yeah--right!"

"I am shocked at these statistics!" exclaims MLO Editorial Advisory Board member Betty Martin, coauthor of an MLO article on sexual harassment a decade ago.[4] That nothing was done to 60% of harassers in reported cases demonstrates a clear breach of affirmative action policy and procedure, she asserts. Particularly staggering, she continues, is that after reporting the incident, 22% of victims quit their jobs, 2% lost their jobs, and in 20% of cases, the harassment continued. (A recent study of 9,000 readers who returned a Working Woman magazine survey on sexual harassment reported similarly alarming data.[5]) "Where are the lab managers?" Martin asks. "They can't allow victims of harassment to quit. They must bite the bullet" and take charge.

"The bottom line," Martin insists, "is that managers have a moral obligation to their staffs to step in and address these issues." Educating staff members on proper protocols, telling victims they will suffer no consequences from stepping forward, and making it known that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in any form are necessary to help prevent further erosion in the ranks of laboratorians, she says. "If lab management won't help, the victims must go to a higher authority" in the institution. Unfortunately, however, the Clarence Thomas--Anita Hill hearings, Martin concludes, "proved that the old-boy network is alive--all the way to the top."

Melting women's well-founded resistance to reporting harassment may not be easy. Yet to maintain a safe and fair environment, management must enable sexual harassment victims to protect themselves. The road to recourse must extend beyond the immediate supervisor, in case that person is the offender.

Judges are increasingly willing to condemn hostile-environment harassment; even the presence of sexist posters, for example, is taboo.[6] The prevailing atmosphere can influence the determination of a lawsuit, should an accusation get that far. "The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission takes the position that employees may reasonably believe that sexual harassment is condoned in a workplace that has no ... policy statement and effective complaint procedure," states an attorney who has written a book on the subject.[7]

Employers look the other way at their peril. Under EEOC guidelines, the employer is legally responsible if a supervisor or manager harasses, as well as for failure to take immediate and appropriate corrective action when harassment by an employee is reported.[8] Furthermore, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 permits jury trials and punitive damages for proven instances of sexual harassment.

A customer service technical supervisor at an independent lab in Michigan sees improvement: "I have noticed that since the Hill--Thomas hearings, our male counterparts watch what they say to females."

* Breaking with the past. In an introduction to a special section on women in science published in the journal Science, Bernadine Healy, M.D., director of the National Institutes of Health, writes about suffragettes who concluded that since men in power cared more about broken windows than women's lot, women should break windows to demand attention. Healy concludes, " is clear that all of us in the scientific community have a lot of breaking to do--especially old rules, self-defeating habits, and glass ceilings."[9]

There may never have been a better time for women laboratorians to rebuff abuse when it arises and to strive toward financial and professional equality. A laboratory manager in Massachusetts sums up the proactive stance of many MLO survey respondents in asserting, "There will always be men and women who do not conduct themselves in a professional manner. There will always be women who complain that 'men get all the advantages.' But until these women go out and get advanced degrees and do the lobbying that will change their situation, they have no business complaining. Complaining does not solve problems. Coming up with a workable answer will."

1. Monaghan, J.C. The status of women in the lab. MLO 11(1): 79-96, January 1979.

2. Schwartz, F.N. Management women and the new facts of life. Harvard Bus. Rev. 67: 65-76, January/February 1989.

3. Jacobsen, Joyce P., Ph.D., Dept. of Economics, Rhodes College, Memphis, Tenn., and Laurence M. Levin, Ph.D., Dept. of Economics, Santa Clara (Calif.) University. "The Effects of Intermittent Labor Force Attachment on Female Earnings." Presented before the American Economic Association, New Orleans, January 1992.

4. Martin, B.G.; Hoffman, N.; and Scicchitano, V. Keeping sexual harassment out of the lab. MLO 14(2): 32-36, February 1982.

5. Sandroff, R. Sexual harassment: The inside story. Working Woman, pp. 47-51, 78, June 1992.

6. Smith, M.L. Is it sexual harassment? Supervisory Management 37(4): 5-6, April 1992.

7. Wagner, E.J. A closer look at hostile-environment harassment. Supervisory Management 37(4): 1,4, April 1992.

8. Sexual harassment charges can be fought if you have fair policies and procedures. Management Policies and Personnel Law 1-3, Feb. 15, 1992.

9. Healy, B. Women in science: From panes to ceilings. Science 255(5050): 1333, March 13, 1992.

General references:

Rosener, J.B. Ways women lead. Harvard Bus. Rev. 68(6): 119-125, November/December 1990.

Wagner, E.J. "Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: How to Prevent, Investigate, and Resolve Problems in Your Organization." New York, Creative Solutions, Inc., AMACOM (American Management Association), 1992.
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Title Annotation:The Status of Women in Laboratory, part 2
Author:Ringel, Marcia J.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Previous Article:Job satisfaction in the field: women speak out.
Next Article:Technician or technologist? Sorting out overelapping roles in the lab.

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