Is It Harassment, Or `Le Flirt'?

Europe can't agree on what to do about sexual abuse at work

When Caroline Croft worked in the social affairs office of the European Commission, a male colleague kept turning the conversation to sex. "The questions were inappropriate, way beyond anything to do with work," Croft, a 30-year-old Briton, recalls. Eventually, Croft's boss got the two to sit down for a private talk--and the innuendo stopped. "In the U.S., we might have ended up in court," Croft says. "This was much more satisfactory."

Forget the public confrontations of Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, and President Bill Clinton. Sexual harassment in Europe is almost always dealt with behind closed doors--when it is dealt with at all. But that's not to say the problem isn't serious. The European Commission now estimates that almost a third of Europe's female employees have been harassed. Most of them, fearful of losing their jobs, do not speak out. And in societies where many public figures still keep mistresses openly, business is resisting a uniform code of conduct.

JAIL TIME. The problem is not the law. Apart from Portugal and Greece, all 15 European Union members have anti-harassment statutes that allow women to press their cases in their companies or in labor courts. But penalties are minor and enforcement lax. In Germany, harassment is a not a criminal offense--and is more or less ignored. Italy's Parliament has neglected two recent legislative proposals. Britain, where several cases have made headlines, including one involving the Royal Navy, is Europe's exception. There, penalties run to six months in jail and a fine of $8,000.

Many women simply don't report incidents of harassment. Last year, when the Netherlands set out to train 800 female police recruits, half quit before finishing the course. Monique Matze of Holland's Social Affairs & Employment Ministry attributes at least some of the attrition to harassment. Nonetheless, the Dutch government reported just 48 cases of harassment in 1997--"a fraction of the real problem," Matze says.

Women who do complain can run high risks. In southern France, Maryse Mercier, a 32-year-old secretary, was fired several years ago after rejecting her employer's advances. Soon after, he sued her for libel. Late last year, a labor court finally awarded Mercier about $23,000, but legal bills ate up most of it. "Women often find themselves in the position of the accused," says Catherine Le Magueresse, president of a group combating harassment. Indeed, Mercier eventually had to sell her apartment and move elsewhere.

High unemployment makes it even riskier for employed women to speak out--and causes them to defer other key issues. New EU statistics show that wages for Europe's women are roughly where they are for U.S. women: about 25% less than those for men. "If you have a job, you don't want to stand up and fight," says Barbara Helferich, secretary-general of the European Women's Lobby, a pan-European advocacy group based in Brussels. Helferich adds, however, that membership is swelling quickly among jobless women. "Now, all we need is a Clinton or an Anita Hill type of scandal to put the focus on discrimination and harassment."

STUNNED. Yet hard-edged U.S.-style remedies are often rejected as extreme. The Brussels-based human resources director for a major U.S. company--who did not want to be named--was stunned when she recently received new harassment guidelines from U.S. headquarters. "If anybody told me I have a `pretty dress,' the Americans would consider it harassment," this executive says. "In our cultural context, that would be considered perfectly appropriate."

Addressing the issue Europewide is proving to be difficult. When the EC recently convened employers and unions to draw up a standard anti-harassment law, the proposal foundered along both cultural and labor lines. "Northern Europeans thought they had resolved the problem, and southern Europeans didn't recognize a problem," says Beatrice Hertogs, social affairs adviser to the European Trade Union Confederation. "What a Dane thinks is harassment is flirting in France."

At least the unions were willing to talk. But UNICE, the employers' group representing European industry, rejected the very idea of a European standard. Its representative at the talks was none other than Caroline Croft, who resolved her harassment problem at her previous job through quiet diplomacy. "We don't want a rigid, American-style definition of harassment," Croft says. Still, unless Europeans can agree on what constitutes improper behavior, women will continue to face the prospect of abuse at work.

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