Harassment suit brews over ads

Working women LrB

March 16, 1992|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

Since being hired as a machinist in 1985, Jean Keopple, one of 30 women among 330 workers at Stroh Brewery Co. in St. Paul, Minn., claims she has been subjected to a "barrage of sexual harassment, discrimination and intimidation."

Among her list of 40 allegations of obscene and threatening behavior are charges that photos of nude, spread-eagled women were left in her work area and that obscenities were written about her on the bathroom wall.

Lana Hastan, a former Stroh machinist, claims that male employees "grabbed her on the rear end." She is an Indian, and she charges that a Stroh worker said, "Squaws are good for only one thing."

Antonia Felipe, a Stroh bottler, alleges that she was called a "bitch" and "a dumb Mexican spic."

Beth Gruber, also a bottler, charges that a male employee "displayed his pubic hair and grabbed my head and pushed it down to his crotch."

The four women, along with Lisa Meagher, Tammy Meyers, Dianne Chaves and Diane Novotny-Young, have filed a suit against parent Stroh Cos. in Detroit charging sexual harassment and lack of job advancement.

They are asking for compensation in the six figures, and for Stroh's to drop sexist advertising.

Allegations of harassment are not new to women in such male-dominated jobs, which typically pay $15 an hour. What is different is the charge that Stroh's media campaigns contribute to the alleged workplace harassment.

The suit asks Stroh to stop using women as sexual objects; it specifically asks that one series of television commercials, which feature bikini-clad, Old Milwaukee beer-bearing females -- the Swedish Bikini Team -- be discontinued.

Stroh denies allegations of sexual harassment and says there is no connection between ads and workplace behavior. A representative says the company has a "very definite and strong policy" against sexual harassment that it has "maintained and enforced" for more than a decade.

But Lori Peterson, a Minneapolis attorney who represents the plaintiffs, disagrees.

"You can't tell me a company is interested in ending sexism in its plants when it spends millions of dollars a year promoting it," Ms. Peterson said. "When the women first came to me telling me how powerless, sick and devastated the harassment made them feel, I asked to see what they said was on all the walls."

She says they brought in material produced by Stroh itself: posters of women in baseball and football uniforms cut to the navel with breasts exposed, and ads showing rear views of women in bikinis that read: "Why the average beer commercial has more cans than bottles."

Stroh has stopped the bikini ads, and Ms. Peterson says it offered a cash settlement to the women. But the women turned the offer down because the company "refused to deal" with its overall ad campaign and didn't offer sexual harassment awareness training for supervisors.

"It would be derelict to take money only and leave women to work in a hostile environment that shows no signs of change," the attorney said.

Challenging an advertising campaign is "significant because it says that the corporate culture and image help shape the behavior of people who work there," says Ellen Bravo, co-director of the Milwaukee branch of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women.

Ms. Bravo, who has counseled women on sexual harassment for 20 years, reports that 9to5's national hot line received more than 2,000 phone calls during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas JTC hearings from women with stories of sexual harassment.

"Using women to sell products cheapens the work done by competent, hard-working women who are just as much in a need of a job as men," she said.

Commercial exploitation of women adds a "sexual component to women in the workplace," said Marlene Sanders, former television network correspondent and author of "Waiting for Prime Time: The Women of Television News" (University of Illinois Press, $21.95). "If men believe these ads, they will treat women as sexual objects rather than as co-workers."

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