Not just an American problem

December 17, 1992

Publicity surrounding the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings over her allegations of sexual harassment in the work place have placed this item not only on the national agenda, but on agendas of countries in other parts of the world. While Americans have traditionally been in the forefront of defining and punishing sexual harassment, other industrialized nations are rapidly catching up -- and, in some cases, surpassing the United States in efforts to prevent this demeaning behavior.

A new survey of 23 industrialized countries by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization has found sexual harassment affects a considerable number of working women, with 6 percent to 8 percent saying harassment caused them to change jobs, either voluntarily or involuntarily. In some surveys, between 15 and 30 percent of working women say they have been subjected to frequent and serious sexual harassment, including unwanted touching, offensive remarks and unwelcome requests for sexual intercourse. The ILO hopes to do similar polls in developing countries, where the problem is thought to be more widespread and more difficult to change.

Surveying the problem is one thing; finding solutions is another. The ILO's report includes a helpful country-by-country review of the policies, laws and punishments for sexual harassment. It is also useful for highlighting trends and approaches that may yield productive results.

Some countries, for instance, are moving toward an approach that encourages the prevention of harassment rather than focusing on doling out punishment for offenses after they occur. In the United States, where in 1975 federal courts first recognized sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination, the legal approach is still largely focused on punishment.

As the ILO report makes clear, sexual harassment is not a sign of romantic attraction or even a reflection of lust, but rather a demonstration of power over someone perceived as vulnerable and financially dependent. Sexual harassment demeans its victims and violates their civil rights. It affects job performance as well.

Any country that wants to protect the dignity of its citizens and, at the same time, encourage a productive work force that can fully compete in the world market has a vested interest in discouraging harassment of any kind.

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