When To Speak Up

Women often find themselves navigating the gray areas of on-the-job harassment


When Betty Buck took over her family's beer-wholesaling business in 1985, she quickly found herself putting up with men who gave her grief because she was a woman.

At a training meeting, a man told her that she belonged "at home and in the kitchen." Her strategy was to ignore the disparaging remarks.

But when she attended her first state convention as the company's leader, Buck was surrounded by men who used bad language, disrespected her and failed to treat her as their peer. So Buck told them she wouldn't stand for their behavior.

"What it boiled down to was does it affect just me, or will this have a long-term effect on the women who will follow me in the business?" said Buck, 49, president of Buck Distributing Co., which was founded by her father 60 years ago in Upper Marlboro. "If you don't stand up for yourself in a man's world, no one else will. It was always the good old boys. They needed to learn to move over and make room for the girls."

As far as women have come in the workplace, they still face gender stereotypes, sexist attitudes and inappropriate behavior on the job. Many women find themselves using various strategies for combating boorish behavior: deciding which taunts are better left ignored, which warrant a quick response and which need to be taken to a higher level.

Such gray areas present a dilemma for female employees: How much should they put up with before taking action? Or should they speak up at the first incident of an offensive comment or behavior?

Though many women acknowledge it's something they're forced to deal with daily, the issue has re-ignited public debate since Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer was criticized for ogling a 24-year-old executive assistant to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. during a public hearing last month.

Women's rights advocates say female employees - or for that matter, male workers - don't have to tolerate any behavior they find offensive, regardless of whether it meets the legal definition of sexual harassment.

But dynamics such as office politics, peer pressure and fear of being labeled a troublemaker play a role in the choices women make, experts say.

"You want the perception that you're a team player, professional and one of the gang," said Mallary Tytel, a management consultant who has trained managers and employees on workplace conduct, including sexual harassment. "On the other hand, it shouldn't be a hostile environment or an uncomfortable environment."

Schaefer's comments to a young female staffer that she "walk again" for him during a public meeting caused an uproar. The woman has not spoken publicly about the incident but Schaefer said she told him she was embarrassed by his comments. Schaefer publicly apologized a few days later.

What constitutes improper or disrespectful behavior sometimes is in the eye of the beholder. Therefore, workplace experts say, there's no one-size-fits-all rule on when good-natured teasing or flirting, for example, crosses the line.

Under federal law, sexual harassment is a type of discrimination and is defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature."

In order to meet the legal threshold, workplace experts and lawyers say, employees typically must prove that the behavior or conduct was pervasive and produced a hostile or intimidating work environment.

The victim as well as the harasser can be a man or a woman, and sexual harassment does not have to involve the opposite sex. Experts say harassment cases typically involve a male offender and a female victim. Of the 12,679 sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC in the 2005 fiscal year, less than 15 percent were filed by men.

But even with federal and state sexual harassment laws and company policies in place, women still face tough decisions.

"It's all good to say, `Here's the [sexual harassment] policy, the law, we have zero tolerance,'" said Lee Bernstein, a California-based human resources management consultant who trains managers and employees on sexual harassment. "Yet, what's the reality?

"I'm not saying that a senior executive or CEO or president will get you fired," she added. "The person [being harassed] sees the road in front of them and thinks, `I know in my heart it was harassment but all things considered, it may not be worth it. I have my job, I like my job, I make good money.'"

Nonetheless, Bernstein and others advise women to speak up directly to the individual who engaged in inappropriate verbal or physical conduct. In most situations, the behavior or comments stop there.

And in Buck's situation, the beer wholesaler made her expectations clear to her male peers. Buck gained respect and credibility because "I stood my ground," she said.

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