The University Record, June 19, 1995

Best way to handle sexual harassment is to tell someone about it

By Debbie Gilbert
News and Information Services

Sexual harassment: is it or isn't it? "Sleep with me and you will get the promotion," is a clear-cut example of sexual harassment, but what about dirty jokes and sexual innuendo? They might be, depending on the frequency and egregiousness of the comments, the effect on the victim and power disparities in the relationship.

Blatent "quid pro quo" demands for sexual favors in exchange for workplace rewards account for under 5 percent of the complaints nationally. The vast majority of sexual harassment comes under the murkier rubric of "creating a hostile environment," which includes unwelcome touching, sexual innuendo, sexual jokes and posting printed or visual sexual materials.

Many people are acutely distressed by such behaviors but find it hard to object to them, according to Terri Gilbert and David Betts of Human Resources and Affirmative Action, who presented a workshop on sexual harassment at the Workplace of the '90s conference.

"Failure to object, however, doesn't mean the sexual behavior was welcome, particularly if there is a disparity in size, age or power. For instance, in the case of student-teacher relationships, the students' lack of power suggests they lack the free will to object," said workshop participant Jackie McClain, executive director of Human Resources/ Affirmative Action.

Studies show that about 30 percent of college women will experience sexual harassment by the third year of college, and 53 percent of women executives have experienced it in the workplace. However, 80 -90 percent of women will not come forward to complain for fear of retaliation or loss of privacy, according to Betts.

The University encourages women and men who are encountering sexual harassment to come forward. Complainants can go to Human Resources/Affirmative Action, or designated complaint receivers in their units, for information and advice, but "in general, the University is accountable for what is known or should have been known by any of its agents--for instance, supervisors or complaint handlers." Therefore, those agents may be required to take some action, based on what they knew or should have known, McClain said.

"If you want absolute confidentiality while you explore your alternatives," Gilbert said, "you should talk to counselors who are legally privileged and are not required to take action on complaints."

Privileged counselors can be found at the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program, the Medical Campus Faculty and Staff Assistance Office, Counseling Services, University Hospital Mental Health Emergency or the Lesbian and Gay Male Programs Office.

Most of the complaints of sexual harassment at the University are resolved through informal mediation or by simply informing the alleged harassers that someone has complained. Affirmative Action has standard forms for letters to help complainants express their concerns effectively.

Complaints are taken very seriously, "and we conduct a fair and careful process for both parties," Gilbert added. "We investigate carefully and ask questions. The fact that a complaint was made doesn't mean we assume guilt."