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Strategies Women Can Use to Combat Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Contributed by kforce's
Joe Hodowanes, Career Strategy Advisor

MYTH: Sexual harassment is rare.

FACT: Sexual harassment is extremely widespread. It touches the lives of 40 to 60 percent of working women, and similar proportions of female students in colleges and universities.

MYTH: The seriousness of sexual harassment has been exaggerated. Most so-called harassment is really trivial and harmless flirtation.

FACT: Sexual harassment can be devastating. Studies indicate that most harassment has nothing to do with flirtation, or sincere sexual or social interest. Rather, it is offensive, often frightening and insulting to women. Research has shown that many women are often forced to leave school or a job to avoid further harassment, and can experience serious psychological and health-related problems.

MYTH: Many women make up and report stories of sexual harassment to get back at their employers or others who have angered them.

FACT: Research shows that less than one percent of complaints are false. Women rarely file false complaints and often do not file even when justified.

MYTH: Women generally provoke sexual harassment by the way they look, dress and behave.

FACT: Harassment does not occur because women dress provocatively or initiate sexual activity in the hope of getting promoted and advancing their careers. Studies have found that victims of sexual harassment vary in physical appearance, dress type, age and behavior. The only thing they have in common is that the overwhelming majority are women.

MYTH: If you ignore harassment, it will go away.

FACT: It will not. Research has shown that simply ignoring the behavior is ineffective — harassers generally will not stop on their own. Ignoring such behavior may even be seen as agreement or encouragement.

Understanding Sexual Harassment
So what constitutes sexual harassment? According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

"Harassment on the basis of sex is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the Education Amendment. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment."
There are two kinds of sexual harassment:
  • Quid pro quo
  • Hostile environment

    Quid pro quo harassment occurs when someone with supervisory authority makes an economic benefit or a term, condition or privilege of employment — possibly even the job itself — contingent upon a subordinate's submission to sexual advances. It can also occur when a subordinate is punished for not submitting to sexual advances. Quid pro quo harassment is the equivalent of economic rape.

    A hostile work environment exists when the work atmosphere is so infused with sexually oriented, or otherwise hostile or abusive conduct, that an employee's reasonable comfort level and/or ability to perform are severely undermined. In contrast to quid pro quo harassment, coworkers, and even customers, can cause a hostile work environment.

    What to Do If You Are Harassed
    Overwhelming evidence suggests that the best way to eliminate a sexual harassment problem is to confront the harasser. Immediately let them know that their behavior:

  • Is offensive to you
  • Embarrasses you
  • Makes you sick to your stomach
  • Scares you
  • Does whatever it is doing to you

    Then ask them to stop immediately.

    Friends, affirmative action officers, human resource professionals and women's groups can offer information, advice and support, but only you can decide what is right for you. The only thing you can be absolutely certain of is that ignoring the situation will not cause it to go away.

    Above all, do not blame yourself. It is not your fault. Place the blame where it belongs — on the harasser. Self-blame can cause depression and will not help you or the situation. Many women have found the following strategies effective:

  • Say NO to the harasser! Be direct. Write a letter to them. Describe the incident and how it made you feel. State that you would like the harassment to stop. Send the letter by certified mail and keep a copy.
  • Keep a record of what happened and when. Include dates, times, places, names of persons involved, including any witnesses, and who said what to whom.
  • Tell someone — don't keep it to yourself. Keeping quiet about the harassment won't stop it. Chances are extremely good that you aren't your harasser's only victim. Speaking up can be helpful in finding support and preventing others from becoming victims.
  • Find out who is responsible for dealing with harassment at your organization and whether you can talk with that person confidentially. Almost all organizations have sexual harassment policies and procedures, as well as individuals or counselors who administer them. Find out the procedure at your workplace or school. It is your organization's responsibility to advise, help and support you. Not only can your company offer you support, but such meetings at the workplace can provide an important record should legal action be advised.
  • If you are a union member, speak to your union representative. Unions are generally very committed to eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • Consult a psychologist or other mental health professional who understands the problems caused by sexual harassment if you are experiencing psychological distress related to harassment.

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