Sexual conduct on the job is debated among workers

October 15, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In their first full working day since the Clarence Thomas hearings, millions of men and women shared the new national consciousness of sexual harassment yesterday.

"There is no question that there is heightened awareness of all parties, men and women. I have heard it discussed in the elevators and the lunchroom," said Charles W. Crist, vice-president for human resources at Bell Atlantic's corporate headquarters in Virginia.

"It is a watershed event. It's bringing something out of the closet," said Lynn Litow, an organization psychologist with the Marlin Group, Baltimore, which conducted a major study of gender bias and sexual harassment for the American Bar Association earlier this year.

What nobody knows is whether the heightened awareness of the problem will have a lasting effect on the male-female relationship in the workplace. Will the working man reform his sometimes-offensive ways? Will women be readier to complain? Will there be new strains between the two?

"Despite all the attention being paid to the hearings on Capitol Hill, I don't think the boorish behavior on the part of insecure managers will change," said Burke Stinson, of AT&T, which has 325,000 employees worldwide, 279,000 of them in the United States.

AT&T's investigations of sexual harassment complaints by women employees have shown that only one in 20 is unfounded.

"What will change more is action on the part of secure and bright managers. They will modify their behavior," he predicted, adding: "I think you will find that bright, self-assured managers who nonetheless tell dirty jokes, make yahoo comments, will think twice.

"The stupid manager, the office 'lech,' won't change. In fact, I would be willing to bet that around corporate America, the boorish managers are now making light of the entire proceeding and may even be using Anita Hill's testimony as a way of talking dirty this morning."

It's not talk as much as direct harassment that worries Joanne Hustead, policy counsel at the Women's Legal Defense Fund in Washington.

"My concern is not really dirty jokes being told in front of women," she said. "What I am much more concerned about is the type of one-on-one behavior that has been alleged in this [Thomas] case and that we find credible."

The only "positive outcome of the Senate hearings would be the rejection of Judge Thomas' nomination for the Supreme Court, she said: "If the final word from this is that he is believed and she is not, then women would be even more reluctant about coming forward, and that would be a real tragedy."

For Lynn Litow, who conducted the sexual harassment study for the ABA, the Thomas hearings emphasized the need for better training programs and grievance procedures throughout the workplace.

She said: "It will be up to executives and managers of organizations to promote the awareness and continue to explore the subject.

"I think what we are looking at is a culture that socializes men differently from women. I don't think it is necessarily just men who have to change. Women also need to take a look.

"I think it's a very long-term process of being able to change the way men behave and the way women behave. There is certainly greater visibility. But is there greater enlightenment? The answer is probably -- no."

Joshua Smith Sr., chairman and chief executive officer of Maxima, a computer systems company in Lanham, Prince George's County, views the potential impact of the hearings as "a major blow." He employs 800 workers, roughly divided between the sexes, and cannot remember being confronted with a sexual harassment complaint.

Mr. Smith said: "I think a lot of people are going to be very hesitant. I see people becoming very defensive. You are talking about a major area which may be more determined by how you act than what your intentions are. That is subjective, and it's very hard."

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