Effects of Educational Strategies on College Students' Identification of Sexual Harassment

Article excerpt

Sexual harassment in the workplace and educational institutions is a growing problem that concerns many women, men, and employers. Approximately 46 percent of the workforce is comprised of women and is projected to be 48 percent by 2008 (U.S. Dept of Labor, 2000). Several self-report surveys have suggested that approximately one in three women believe they have been the victims of sexual harassment and approximately 15% of men report having experienced sexual harassment (Charney & Russell, 1994; Fitzgerald, 1993: U.S. Merit System Protection Board, 1988).

To understand sexual harassment, an agreed upon definition of sexual harassment needs to be established and disseminated. In 1980 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) legally defined sexual harassment, stipulating two types of harassment: Quid pro quo and hostile work environment harassment. Quid pro quo harassment literally means "this for that": in most situations this type of harassment is clearly defined and recognized as sexual harassment. Frazier, Cochran, and Olson (1995) in their review of social science research on lay definitions of sexual harassment suggest that quid pro quo forms of harassment such as sexual bribery, explicit sexual propositions, and sexual touching are clearly defined by respondents as sexual harassment. However, respondents do not collectively agree that staring, flirting, and the use of coarse language constitute sexual harassment. Hostile work environment harassment is often subjectively defined: therefore, a "reasonable person" standard has been offered to determine if behavior is sufficiently severe to be considered sexual harassment. However, a "reasonable person" standard is still subject to individual interpretation.

Sexual harassment is a pervasive problem affecting all organizations, including educational institutions. Legal policies also have been developed for institutions of higher education. One such policy is the Illinois Human Rights Act, which defines sexual harassment and states under what circumstances it may occur. Although this policy offers more specific circumstances under which sexual harassment can occur, it does not describe specific behaviors that are considered as sexual harassment. Therefore, as with the EEOC guidelines, the Illinois Human Rights Act is subject to individual interpretation.

With the increasing incidence and severity of sexual harassment claims, it is clear that organizations need to clarify policies and develop more effective educational strategies that clearly specify the severity and seriousness of all forms of sexual harassment. Previous research suggests that sexual harassment is more effectively avoided when organizations make clear, consistent, and visible efforts to deal with the problem (Gruber, 1998; Pryor, LaVite, & Stoller, 1993).

The literature suggests that 30% of undergraduate women are victims of sexual harassment while only 5-10% of these women report the harassment with only the most severe instances of harassment being reported. Under reporting may be attributable to unclear policies regarding sexual harassment, a lack of education regarding sexual harassment policies, or a fear of negative consequences (Cortina, Swan, Fitzgerald, & Waldo, 1998; Dziech and Weiner, 1984; Fitzgerald, Shullman, Bailey, Richards, Swocker, Gold, Ormerod, & Weitzman, 1988; Hulin, Fitzgerald, & Drasgrow, 1996; Jones & Remland, 1992).

Students are in need of policy education to diminish the pervasiveness of sexual harassment on campus. Initiation of prevention education before a student reaches the workforce may also help to diminish the incidence of sexual harassment in the workplace. Therefore, learning how different types of education affect perceptions can lead to a model of education in the university, in the workplace, and for future research.

Several studies have examined the subjective classification of sexual harassment with conflicting results. …