Sexual Harassment: Little Understood, Frequent POLITICS AND JUSTICE
Linda Feldmann, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
WHEN Judge Clarence Thomas and law professor Anita Hill appear today before the Senate Judiciary Committee, at issue will be an offense that is widely alleged but little understood, particularly by men.
Since the debate on sexual harassment burst onto the national scene this week, Professor Hill's charge that Judge Thomas sexually harassed her 10 years ago has elicited outrage and sympathy among women.
Those questioning the timing and validity of her charges have tended to be men. It was an all-male judiciary committee that was prepared to let the FBI report detailing her remarks slide by and for Thomas to be confirmed Tuesday evening, until an aide to a committee member reportedly leaked the information to the press and the issue exploded.
"A Pandora's Box of outrage has been opened," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for the Feminist Majority. "We have the power; we just have to use it."
Hill has charged that Thomas created a "hostile environment" at their work place by repeatedly describing pornographic scenes to her after she refused to go out with him. Such verbal harassment violates guidelines of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which Thomas headed at the time.
Hill is not alone in believing she has been sexually harassed on the job. Numerous surveys have shown that a sizable percentage of working women say they have suffered sexual harassment, though very few have filed lawsuits.
In a 1988 survey by the United States Merit System Protection Board, 42 percent of women employed by the federal government said they had been harassed in the previous two years. Of those, only 5 percent filed complaints.
A survey conducted for the House Armed Services Committee found that 80 percent of women employed by the Department of Defense reported harassment. The results were rejected as suspect, and another survey was taken. The questioners asked first about teasing, then harassment - and got the same result.
Another 1988 survey, of Fortune 500 executives queried by Working Woman magazine, found that one-third had experienced sex-discrimination lawsuits. One-fourth had faced repeated suits.
EEOC figures for sexual-harassment charges filed between 1985 and 1990 show that levels have not gone up or down dramatically during that period; the number of charges ranged between 4,446 and 5,572 a year. …