Sexual Harassment: The Age Of Anxiety

Around the turn of the century, women began taking clerical jobs in male-dominated offices, a phenomenon that led vaudevillians to sing reassuringly: "Heaven will protect the working girl." Working women today needn't rely on divine intervention to protect them from wolves in pinstripes. Instead, they and their employers can turn to a bevy of paperbacks on sexual harassment, inspired no doubt by the televised Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings last fall.

Because the words "sexual harassment" are splashed across the covers of five of these books, it's a little hard to tell the players without a scorecard. These books cover pretty much the same ground, anyway. All define sexual harassment, both the quid pro quo ("Sleep with me if you want that raise") and the more common, but only recently defined, "hostile environment" (workplace atmosphere or behavior that a reasonable woman would find offensive).

All of the books give, in varying detail, a legal history of sexual harassment cases and quote the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission procedural guidelines. Each attempts to describe the prevalence of the problem, using virtually the same surveys and polls. Because these are service-oriented books, hefty sections on how to handle a complaint and how to conduct preventative training are included. And since they're geared to busy readers, their texts are usually punctuated with easy-to-scan lists, examples, and lots of stark statements arranged in myth/fact form.

A few contradictions in the advice do surface. Sexual Harassment on the Job (Nolo Press, $14.95) suggests giving accusers a complaint form to fill out, and even includes a sample. But Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (Amacom, $17.95) says such forms "may well have a chilling effect" on complainants' desire to come forward. The books also disagree over whether a victim should confide in co-workers. Sexual Harassment: Know Your Rights! (Carroll & Graf, $9.95) and The 9to5 Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment (Wiley, $9.95) think she should. (Most complainants are female.) Sexual Harassment on the Job, however, warns that talking to colleagues could complicate, if not jeopardize, their jobs. Sexual Harassment in the Workplace feels such talk could raise issues of character defamation.

Mainly, though, the difference between these guides is one of tone. The 9to5 Guide strikes a frankly feminist stance from its introduction, linking sexual harassment to sexual discrimination in general: "It's women's relatively low status in the work world that makes the problem so widespread and so persistent. And if harassment stems from women's inferior position on the job, it also functions to keep women there."

In contrast to 9to5's sometimes simplistic indignation, the management-oriented Sexual Harassment in the Workplace seems almost reluctant to admit the issue. "Sexual harassment situations are fraught with pitfalls.... The truth can be elusive as claims and counterclaims compete for credibility," warns its very first page. "Everyone involved has rights, and frequently these rights conflict." Workplace devotes a chapter to distinguishing between sexual harassment and office romance. Certainly personal history between two parties can be significant in a harassment charge--but an entire chapter?

The easiest read is the concise Step Forward (Master Media, $9.95). Susan L. Webb, who counsels individuals and companies, enlivens the book with descriptions of her consulting experiences--including one that could be titled "The Workshop from Hell." For three hours, she addressed 90 utility linemen in a cold, austere locker room, no management representative in sight. Just coming off shift, the men were tired, dirty, and hostile, shrugging off the concept of harassment charges as feminine complaints--until one stood up and announced: "Everybody in here is sayin', 'If she don't like it she oughta say somethin'.' Well...if I was a woman in this room right now, I wouldn't say s---." The situation improved thereafter, and Webb uses the anecdote to illustrate how training sessions should (or shouldn't) be set up.

Sexual Harassment on the Job, by attorneys William Petrocelli and Barbara Kate Repa, is just as readable. Its text is wittily punctuated with apt historical quotes from Abigail Adams and 19th century etiquette guides. The tone is thoughtful, dismissing the idea that concern over sexual harassment will lead to stifled, humorless offices: "The impending peril of the sterile workplace is greatly exaggerated. Awareness, coupled with education about sexual harassment, can go a long way toward increasing equality and decreasing discomfort in the workplace." Of the five, Sexual Harassment on the Job is the best reference guide, with a state-by-state rundown of laws.

The only real miss is Sexual Harassment: Know Your Rights!, compiled by two lawyers, Martin Eskenazi and David Gallen. It consists almost entirely of reprints: EEOC guides, federal statutes, a chapter from law professor Catharine A. MacKinnon's groundbreaking yet dated Sexual Harassment and Working Women. The introduction by Anita Hill, excerpted from a speech, is touchingly eloquent. But the main section's question-and-answer format is irritatingly hard to follow.

No reference book--no book at all--can eliminate sexual harassment. But the fact that so many are being published ensures that concern about the problem won't fade. "Its very existence as a public issue will bring about its end," Step Forward says. Heaven hopes that's true.


Troy Segal covers social issues for BUSINESS WEEK.

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