Women Professors' Assertive-Empathic and Non-Assertive Communication in Sexual Harassment Situations

By Krolokke, Charlotte | Women's Studies in Communication, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Women Professors' Assertive-Empathic and Non-Assertive Communication in Sexual Harassment Situations


Krolokke, Charlotte, Women's Studies in Communication


This study attempted to identify when, how and why women professors use Assertive-empathic and non-assertive communication in sexual harassment situations with other faculty members. Of thirty women professors interviewed, only a few reported using assertive-empathic communication; most women relied on non-assertive communication. Reasons for using assertive-empathic and non-assertive communication were based largely on instrumental, relational, or self-identity communication goals.

Sexual harassment is a problem in academia that has been documented to occur to close to half of the female professors working at U. S. universities. In a mail survey conducted by the Affirmative Action office at the University of Pennsylvania (1985), between 14% and 46% of female professors reported experiences with sexual harassment.(1) A similar survey conducted at the University of Minnesota (1990) concluded that between 18% and 47% of female professors surveyed had experienced some form of sexual harassment.(2) At Harvard University, 32% of tenured female faculty and 49% of untenured female faculty reported experiences with sexual harassment (Sandier, 1990). These studies demonstrate that women faculty clearly experience sexual harassment and that the problem is pervasive.

Women in academia incur psychological, physical, and economic costs due to the prevalence of sexual harassment.(3) Psychological costs include a wide range of emotional reactions such as self-doubt, self-blame, and depression. Thoughts like "Is it me?", "If I just worked hard enough," "Maybe I don't teach well enough," and feelings of humiliation are typical psychological reactions to sexual harassment. According to Bravo and Cassedy (1992), "humiliation is a word sexual harassment victims commonly use to describe their experiences. They feel demeaned and devalued. They go to work to do a job, and instead, they're seen as sexual playthings" (p. 43). Psychological terror associated with fear of reprisal or lack of physical safety also occur. As a result, women may avoid teaching late night classes, fear walking alone, or fear staying alone late in their offices.

Physical and economic effects of sexual harassment create additional burdens. Headaches, backaches, eating disorders, and fatigue are all common symptoms associated with sexual harassment (Bravo & Cassedy, 1992). The most common economic costs include increased sick days, job loss, lack of promotion and tenure, lack of appropriate recognition, and failure to generate adequate professional outcomes in the form of scholarly papers and presentations. Bravo and Cassedy (1992) indicate that sexual harassment also influences other women in the university setting who may go out of their way to avoid the harasser.

For universities to create fertile and open learning environments, academic excellence, equality, and life-long learning, sexual harassment must be publicly addressed and eliminated. These are difficult goals to accomplish, however, because women overwhelmingly prefer not to report sexual harassment. Research by Bravo and Cassedy (1992) demonstrated that women fear not being believed, being further humiliated, and being ostracized. Reporting sexual harassment can mean describing "offensive events repeatedly, in detail, in the presence of company officials, lawyers, agency staff, court personnel--and the harasser himself. To many women, the reporting is fully as embarrassing as the abuse itself" (Bravo & Cassedy, 1992, p. 55). Ostracism and damaging or losing one's job are two other fears women confront. As Dr. Frances Conley, a Stanford neurosurgeon reports, "The only reason I put up with it for as long as I did is I really wanted to advance" (Cited in Bravo & Cassedy, 1992, p. 57). Thus, women have legitimate and powerful reasons not to report sexual harassment.

Ironically, considerable research points to the importance of women telling harassers about the inappropriateness of their behavior (Commission of the European Communities, 1993; Friedman, Boumil, & Taylor, 1992). …

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