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Sex Harassment: The Problem That Won't Go Away

February 18, 1988|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer

Some of the men treat women as if they exist only for their enjoyment. For their birthdays, the men bring cakes shaped like a woman's bosom. That is offensive.

There were so many posters of naked women in my office that I decided to bring in some of men from Chippendales just to counteract the ones the men had.

I need more information on what to do if an offensive comment by a supervisor is made regarding sex or race. I feel I can't do anything about it, because if I try, I will probably lose my job.

You might think these are comments from the 1960s, when women began--through sheer numbers and affirmative action lobbying--to make their presence felt in the nation's work force. But they are not. They are observations of the '80s, from the recently released survey of women employed by the city of Los Angeles, ranging from department supervisors to police and security officers, from attorneys to clerk typists.

More than one-third of those women who replied to the confidential questionnaire, 4,826 of the city's 12,000 women employees, cited instances of sexual harassment in the workplace; 70% said filing complaints about it would be fruitless; 61% feared retaliation if they reported it.

Saying he was "outraged" by the survey results, Mayor Tom Bradley issued a "tougher" city policy on sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, citing state and federal laws that prohibit it.

All of which seemed to leave most observers with one nagging question: How, after more than two decades of significant advancements by working women, could sexual harassment still be such a factor in the workplace?

"Between 70% and 90% of women (nationally) say they have been sexually harassed during their working life," said Deborah Meyer of 9 to 5, National Assn. of Working Women, referring to recent national studies.

"It's very high, and it's shocking. But these things take so long to make their way through the culture. Men are still looking at women as objects, whether it is in the home, workplace or a bar.

"And as the number of women increases in the workplace, the less secure men are about their power and the ability to control them," she said. Meyer is associate director of the Cleveland-based membership group for office workers. "Sexual harassment is used to exert control over a woman, to put her in her place. It's a very old-fashioned form of sexism. The culture is changing, but it takes a very long time to change."

"It's an evolutionary process," said Detective Kena Brutsch, female officers coordinator, who handles sexual harassment complaints for the Los Angeles Police Department. "There are still some dinosaurs, but there are new employees coming on all the time.

"As the men work with women, they (women) are becoming more and more accepted. It's all a matter of time. It's the problem of educating people that this is not acceptable in the workplace and creates a hostile environment."

Brutsch, who is part of the LAPD's family support group office, said she has had "as many civilians--daughters, wives and girlfriends of officers"--call her about how to make sexual harassment complaints in private industry as complaints within the department.

"I have also had men (from LAPD) call, as well as women," she said.

"When I have lectured groups of women about sexual harassment, some are very amazed that there's a name for it," said Lynn Hecht Schafran, director of national judicial education programs of the National Organization for Women, who has been active in working with the state task forces studying harassment of women in the courts.

"They thought they had to endure that kind of treatment because they are women in the work force. That's chilling."

Prevalent in Some Jobs

In Los Angeles, the city survey by the Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women confirmed what nationwide ones have found: Sexual harassment is a fact of life in the work force across the board, but there is a higher instance of it in traditionally male-dominated jobs, such as police and security officers, firefighters and paramedics, engineers, maintenance workers and mechanics.

"There is not one female paramedic on this job who has has not been sexually harassed," Los Angeles city paramedic Rebecca Hegwer said in response to the commission's survey. Hegwer is second vice president of the United Paramedics of Los Angeles.

Hegwer mentioned the city Fire Department's ongoing problem of what to do about sexually explicit material in the fire stations, where men and women firefighters and paramedics must share working, sleeping and kitchen quarters while on duty.

Talking about pornographic movies that she has seen being shown, she added: "If you haven't been there (in the job), you don't know the subtleties that go on. Dealing with it (sexual harassment) on a strictly intellectual level is different from dealing with it at the gut level."

Found at All Levels

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