Harassers divided into two types

October 21, 1991|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Evening Sun Staff

In an office in Baltimore, a boss pats his secretary below her waist, and convinces himself that the woman welcomed the attention.

Elsewhere in the city, a supervisor tells a lewd joke to a female worker, and secretly enjoys seeing her cringe with embarrassment.

A third boss is more blatant in revealing his sexism. A woman who spurns his advances is called into his private office, pawed and threatened with firing unless she gives in.

Why do some men harass women at work? Psychologists say the cases range from mischievous Archie Bunker behavior to vicious aggression, and the motives are as complex as male sexuality itself.

All three Baltimore-area men were accused of sexual harassment in the workplace, and all initially disputed the charges.

The first man said, "All I did was pat her on the butt. I thought she'd like it."

The second man said, "I told the same joke to another woman and she laughed."

The third man denied that the incident in his private office ever occurred.

Eventually, though, each boss admitted he had a problem and submitted to counseling.

Psychologists say the Archie Bunker males are the most frequent offenders. They are crude and insulting but not vicious.

"They think their actions are funny," says Susan Hahn, a vice president of the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Towson. "They see their insulting behavior as a cute way to flatter women, but when it is brought to their attention, they stop it."

For other men, sexual harassment is a more direct expression of hostility, insecurity and aggression.

"These men say, 'Get involved with me sexually and you'll get that raise,' " says Hahn. "They know the risk they are taking, but they believe no woman will bring charges against them."

Men fueled by these feelings pose a far greater threat to working women than do the Archie Bunkers of the world, says Jan Buxton-Truffer, a psychologist at Sheppard Pratt.

Of the two types of men who harass female workers, says Buxton-Truffer, "one needs to be re-educated; the other needs to be rehabilitated."

Besides being a psychiatric hospital, Sheppard Pratt runs a nationwide Employee Assistance Program affiliated with about 70 companies. Workers with emotional problems are evaluated and then referred for treatment, generally as outpatients.

Sexual harassment cases usually show up in the program because the women are troubled and seek help. In such instances, companies try to get the offending man into treatment to avoid costly litigation.

A 1988 survey by Working Woman magazine found that accusations of sexual harassment had been lodged against nine of every 10 companies on the Fortune 500 list, and that one-third of those complaints culminated in lawsuits.

Moreover, the magazine said that a typical Fortune 500 company pays heavily for the problem. The annual cost of lost productivity, employee turnover and absenteeism due to harassment was estimated at $6.7 million per company -- not counting litigation.

For some men, having a power position in the workplace brings out the dark side of their sexuality, psychologists say.

Unsure about their manhood or conditioned by upbringing to treat women as adversaries, these men can become smiling predators who use sexual advances as put-downs, to assert themselves and to degrade the opposite sex.

High levels of stress at work can aggravate these tendencies.

Such men have a warped view of male-female relations; they never have been able to view women as intelligent, admirable people and equals. The male goal -- and the turn-on -- is subjugation rather than a relationship based on mutual respect.

These men tend to subscribe to the Playboy ethic, that female behavior is always sexually oriented. In that context, a friendly gesture by a female co-worker is misinterpreted as a come-on.

Moreover, such men often have strong powers of denial. They are self-centered and incapable of empathizing with the woman. They convince themselves that they merely responded to her signals, and that the harassment was harmless, hormone-driven, boys-will-be-boys behavior.

Or they convince themselves that nothing happened at all.

"The most serious cases involve men in high positions," says Buxton-Truffer, who has handled 25 incidents of sexual harassment in 15 years.

Generally, she says, "the man's behavior starts mildly, with flirtation, and escalates into intimidation. There are references to her clothing and build. He asks her out. She refuses. His asking becomes a demand."

Finally, she says, the supervisor may call the woman into his office and say vile things, or worse.

"These are men who use their power to intimidate," says Buxton-Truffer. "It isn't sex that attracts them, although the situation can get to the level of a sexual assault.

"Why do they do it? Perhaps they were abused as children. These men have serious problems."

Far more commonplace are the pat-and-tickle incidents that some men see as normal behavior.

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