Consciousness Raising Among `Plain Old White Boys'

Corning's managers called them boomerang sessions. In the 1970s, executives assembled in workshops and were warned that any sexually harassing statements made to underlings could come back to haunt them. Corning Inc.'s first attempts to combat sexual abuse were reinforced with written rules. Among them: no girlie posters on company walls.

Some might say it was an enlightened policy back then. But when women began quitting in droves in the early 1980s, complaining of an inhospitable environment, Corning figured it needed to take gender issues much more seriously. Now, the company wins plaudits for its treatment of women. Catalyst, a New York advocacy group, chose Corning as one of only four companies to receive its award for "commitment to women."

Although it won't disclose statistics on sexual harassment complaints, Corning seems to be making measurable progress. Attrition among salaried women has plummeted from 16.2% in 1987 to only slightly higher than its 2.6% rate for men. The number of managers with salaries of $45,000 or more who are women has risen to 11.7% from 4.9% in the same period.

PAY GAPS. Corning's efforts began in 1986, when the exodus of women and blacks reached new highs. In departure interviews, the two groups consistently said they felt their careers were limited. Chairman James R. Houghton responded with a quota-based affirmative-action plan designed to advance women and minorities more quickly. The effort resulted in, among other things, Corning's antiharassment programs.

A committee of 11 senior executives, called a quality improvement team, surveyed women employees to uncover their most common complaints. Along with lack of career support, unequal pay, and lack of child-care programs, were charges of sexual harassment. So the committee set up child-care and part-time hours, analyzed pay gaps, and created a mandatory training program for all salaried employees. Another committee developed formal procedures employees and managers should follow in sexual harassment cases (table). Says Dawn M. Cross, Corning's director of diversity: "For us it was a cost of doing business. There were artificial barriers resulting in many employees being underutilized."

Individual divisions at Corning, aware of top management's efforts, developed their own workshops on myriad gender issues. A group of scientists in Corning's labs, for example, developed a videotape with reenactments of comments often heard in the labs. "Better not give that math problem to Sue -- it's too complicated for a woman," says one insensitive man. Sandra L. Gray, a scientist who helped with the video, reports that after every lab employee had seen the video, some harassment stopped. "Many men have changed their attitudes," she says.

'VERY THREATENING.' A similar workshop is being developed in the finance department but only after some soul-searching among white male managers. Controller Richard B. Klein held a meeting for what he called POWs--plain old white boys--after word leaked out about Corning's affirmative-action plans. "This was very threatening at first," he says.

Corning has infused employees with a heavy dose of consciousness-raising. But when specific complaints of sexual harassment are made, it has no magic answer. Company policy offers workers alternative routes for bringing charges, including confidential outside consultants. But roadblocks can appear if the victim wants confidentiality. Corning often won't take action without a full investigation. Says Corning consultant Muriel K. Lazar of Harbridge House, a Northbrook (Ill.) firm that specializes in gender questions: "These are extremely scary issues, and there are still a lot of women who are reluctant to come forward."

Despite Corning's new reputation as a leader, Chairman Houghton is the first to admit his approach is not flawless. "Do we still have a lot of discrimination? Sure," he told BUSINESS WEEK earlier this year. "Is there still sexual harassment? Yes. It's a slow process." But as companies wrestle with sexual harassment in the wake of the Thomas affair, they might want to take a long look at Corning.

THE APPROACH AT CORNING Employees suffering from sexual harassment are advised to: 1 Tell the harasser that the behavior is offensive, explaining how it made you feel and how it has affected your work and career 2 If the problem continues despite your efforts, bring the situation to the attention of management 3 Take part in any investigation. If you don't want the harasser or witnesses to know your name, then there may be no formal action