Sexual Harassment Prevention Project forges alliance with employers

Working Women

September 21, 1992|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

Eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace is a daunting task. To achieve that goal, women's employment advocacy groups have worked to obtain effective laws and to educate women on how to file sexual-harassment charges.

Progress has been made in both areas:

* The 1991 Civil Rights Act, which expanded the rights of women to sue and collect damages of up to $300,000, was passed after the Anita F. Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings electrified the country about sexual harassment.

* Because of widespread media exposure, many women know they can file charges and how to do so.

But because backlash from reporting sexual harassment is often devastating, only 6 percent of employed women file charges, even though, according to a recent government study, about 85 percent of women have been sexually harassed in their work lives.

Some believe it is time to take a different approach.

"We wanted to look at what we can do to change how women are treated on the job, to create a different work environment," said Cindy Marano, executive director of Wider Opportunities for Women, a Washington-based national employment organization.

That is why the National Commission on Working Women, WOW's board of advisers, decided to work with employers. The advocacy and training group is meeting with trade associations to collect and give to employers information on successful prevention programs. "We are committed to demonstrating that employers can . . . create a positive work environment," said Irene Natividad, chairwoman of the commission.

The new Sexual Harassment Prevention Project links WOW with Edison Electric Institute, American Gas Association and the National Association of Broadcasters. It has identified companies with strong prevention programs, such as NBC, Kansas City Power & Light Co. and Michigan Consolidated Gas Co.

Kansas City Power & Light has had mandatory training programs on preventing sexual harassment since 1981. The programs are driven by a commitment to comply with affirmative action goals: Kansas City Power wants to attract and retain women.

Because it is difficult to determine whether women who fail at good-paying jobs lack the necessary skills, the company has initiated tests to screen those applying for non-traditional jobs. It has also established a nine-month apprenticeship program at Pioneer Community College in Kansas City to provide qualified candidates for line jobs.

The connection between skills training and sexual harassment isn't subtle. "We were able to reverse a trend that we had in which women in non-traditional jobs went in the front door and out the back door three weeks later," said Bill Miller, vice president of human resources at Kansas City Power & Light.

Mr. Miller, whose company has 2,800 employees, says it can now determine whether it is performance or sexual harassment that causes turnover -- without charges of incompetence masking what may be sexual harassment.

Carol Manzaro, a consultant who specializes in equal employment opportunities issues, applauds WOW's new alliance with employers.

"It's an excellent idea," Ms. Manzaro said. "I agree with the premise that few women are going to file. This approach puts the onus on the company to become more sensitive."

"If employers don't pay attention to sexual harassment," she said, "they lose good workers, good relations with customers, and the bottom line is they lose money, not just in court but in sales."

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