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Pentagon Survey Finds Much Sex Harassment

July 03, 1996|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — More than half of the military women responding to a massive Pentagon survey said that they were subjected to sexual harassment in the past year, officials said Tuesday, indicating a pervasive problem despite Defense Department efforts to stamp it out.

The survey of service members of both sexes was described by the Pentagon as the most extensive ever undertaken on the subject. It included two checklists of offensive behavior ranging from crude language to rape.

One list contained 25 types of behavior that the Pentagon said is now deemed to be offensive. Fully 78% of the women who responded said that they had experienced at least one of those behaviors.

The other list contained just 10 types of behavior and was included so the Pentagon could compare the responses to an identical list on a 1988 survey. Of the items on that list, 55% of the women said theywere victims of at least one incident over the last year--compared to 64% in the 1988 survey.

Unknown, however, is how many servicewomen were actually subjected to harassment in the last year because nearly half of the 90,000 mail-out surveys were not returned.

On the basis of the 1988-1996 comparison, Edwin Dorn, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told a press conference: "There is some good news here, some encouraging news. Sexual harassment is declining."

Dorn said that there are no truly comparable surveys of sexual harassment among civilian workers. But women with civilian jobs in the federal government were asked questions over the last 10 years that compare to those on the Pentagon's 10-item list. In 1987, 42% reported at least one incident. In 1994, the figure rose to 44%.

The latest Pentagon questionnaire also found that, among personnel with two to five years of service, 46% of the women and 58% of the men said that the rate of sexual harassment has declined in recent years.

Thirty-four percent of the women and 27% of the men said that the rate is unchanged, while 12% of the women and 7% of the men said it is increasing.

Most of the figures reported Tuesday were based on answers to the longer, 25-item checklist which the Pentagon said will become the baseline for future surveys. It indicated that most incidents of sexual harassment happen during working hours, with 43% of the women who said they had been harassed citing superior officers as the offenders, while 44% said that they were harassed by co-workers.

Sixty percent of the women said they did not make a formal complaint, partly out of fear of retaliation.

Summing up the survey, Dorn said military commanders must realize that "sexual harassment is occurring, it may be occurring in your organization on your watch and some believe that it isn't being taken seriously enough."

Although 78% of the women and 38% of the men checked at least one example of unwanted sexual behavior to which they were subjected, the Pentagon said, only 52% of the women and 9% of the men described themselves as victims of sexual harassment. The rest apparently did not consider the incidents serious enough to qualify as harassment.

Grouping the 25 questions into five broad categories, the report showed that 70% of the women and 35% of the men had been subjected to crude and offensive behavior, which could include offensive language. Dorn said that the Pentagon was surprised by the number of men who indicated they were offended by the language of others.

Sixty-three percent of the women and 15% of the men said that they had experienced sexist behavior. Forty-one percent of the women and 8% of the men experienced unwanted sexual attention like touching and fondling, while 13% of the women and 2% of the men suffered sexual coercion such as demands for sex in exchange for job benefits.

Six percent of the women and 1% of the men said they were raped or subjected to attempted rape.

The breakdown totals more than 100% because some respondents reported incidents in more than one category.

Dorn said that survey forms were mailed to 90,000 personnel. About 47,000 of the questionnaires were returned.

The latest survey came against the backdrop of a concerted Pentagon effort to combat sexual harassment, prompted by the 1991 Tailhook scandal in which dozens of women were groped and assaulted by drunken Navy and Marine Corps aviators during a convention in Las Vegas.

Although the survey results have not yet been broken down for the different branches of the military, Dorn said preliminary results seem to indicate that the decline in sexual harassment was most pronounced in the Navy.

Gloria Allred, a Los Angeles women's rights attorney, said that the Pentagon is to be commended for launching training programs to caution personnel against sexual harassment but that "there is still a long, long way to go."

"We're really not going to make any significant impact on the problem until there are more women accepted into the military, at all levels of the military and in all branches of the military," she said.

Dorn readily agreed: "As women begin to occupy more of the war-fighting roles, as they begin to occupy more of the leadership roles, I think that we'll see a salutary effect on sexual harassment, just as we saw in the case of the racial integration of the force."

Dorn said he was disturbed by a finding that only 40% of the women who considered themselves to be victims of sexual harassment filed a formal complaint.

The survey showed that among the 60% who chose not to report the incident, 54% said they handled the problem themselves and 35% said they did not consider it important.

But about one-quarter said they did not report because they thought it would hurt their careers, make their jobs less pleasant or label them as troublemakers. And among the 40% who did report incidents, 20% said that they believe their job performance evaluations suffered.

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