Sexual harassment: Breaking the silence Most endure it and hope it goes away

Louise F. Fitzgerald

October 14, 1991|By Louise F. Fitzgerald

ANITA HILL'S charges against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas have raised cries in Congress and elsewhere that the issue of sexual harassment is intensely private, deeply personal and so ambiguous that it defies "rational" attempts to evaluate.

In fact, social and behavioral scientists have studied the phenomenon for more than a decade, and much is now known about the nature and extent of sexual harassment.

This body of knowledge, well-documented and accepted in the social science community, strikingly contradicts the suspicion echoed last week in the halls of Congress that women who make charges of harassment are lying or have some ulterior motive.

For example, it has been hotly asserted by Thomas' backers that if Hill, a former aide who is now a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma, had really been harassed by Thomas a decade ago, she would have reported it. This ignores overwhelming evidence that the most common response of women when harassed is to endure the situation and hope it will go away.

In a study commissioned by Congress itself, the U.S. Merit Board investigated harassment among 23,000 federal employees. It found that 42 percent of the female employees reported experiences that qualified as sexual harassment (many over a period of time), but only 3 percent of the women who were harassed filed complaints. Typical comments were, "She was afraid to report the incident" and, "She refused his advances and began to avoid him whenever possible, hoping it would blow over."

The senators apparently find it difficult to understand why a woman would put up with sexual attention that she didn't like. But as noted by the Merit Board study, "For a number of federal workers, filing a formal complaint not only did not make things better, but actually made matters worse."

One woman related how her supervisor was found guilty of harassment, but she was the one who was punished. "I was literally forced by my supervisor and management to transfer to another installation," she said. Maybe Congress should read its own study.

Questions about Hill's motivation -- why didn't she complain earlier or quit her job? -- reflect the deep-rooted belief that women often lie about sexual harassment because they are vindictive, because they have been scorned, because they are neurotic or unscrupulous or simply because.

Here, the cultural mythology operates again, a mythology that far outstrips the rare (but well-publicized) instance when the charges actually turn out to be false. Researchers at Purdue University studied the veracity of sexual harassment complaints. their 1988 survey of 700 colleges and universities, they reported that less than 1 percent of sexual harassment complaints were unfounded.

"This is a maximum estimate," the researchers pointed out, and did not take into account that some complaints listed as false by administrators "may have been genuine." The most obvious conclusion is not that women allege sexual harassment for false or frivolous reasons, but that they don't do so in many cases where it is warranted.

My own research confirms that women are very unlikely to report sexual harassment; only 3 percent of the victims in two major universities had filed complaints. Others noted that they were afraid of being labeled as "troublemakers."

Professional women may be especially hesitant to report harassment, according to psychologist Barbara Gutek. Career-oriented women -- lawyers, managers and college professors -- are more dependent on a particular job at a particular time, and may be even less likely to report instances of sexual harassment that could derail their careers in fTC male-dominated institutions.

Despite the professional and psychological consequences of "going public," the insensitivity of Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., was reflected in his statement that he did not bother to read the FBI report on Hill's allegations. "I believe Clarence Thomas," he said. "My guess is it's a kind of he-said, she-said sort of report."

Until very recently, what he said was automatically believed over what she said, but the public firestorm sparked by the Senate's handling of Anita Hill's charges may change all that. When Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., shouted last week that filing a complaint is "what you do" if you have been sexually harassed, half the women in America knew that he was wrong.

9- That's a credibility gap of another kind.

Louise F. Fitzgerald is a psychologist on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has published widely on women and the workplace.

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