They sound like experiences in a Delhi bus. Lewd gestures, offensive language, attacks on your person - the American workplace is for its women workers what public transport is for women in Delhi. A bank teller, Michelle Vinson, suffered physical abuse and alleged rape by the bank's Vice-president Sidney Taylor for four years until finally, assisted by a women's organisation, she went to court.
The district court rejected her appeal, largely because she had remained silent for 4 years and had not used the bank's complaint procedure to ask for help. It held that any relationship between the two was voluntary. The higher court of appeal rejected every finding of the district court and the matter finally found its way to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that sexual harassment is a direct infringement of a woman's right to employment. It creates a hostile and abusive work environment in which she may be forced to leave her job or in which she cannot function to her full potential, even if such unwelcome sexual demands are not directly linked to concrete employment benefits. In other words, the courts ruled that it violates U.S. civil laws against sex discrimination in the work place.
Sexual harassment of working women is endemic, said friends-of-the-court brief filed by numerous women's organisation for this case. In the last 5 years, about half the American female working force has suffered this type of harassment at work. This does not just happen to women in factories or at blue-collar workplaces. Within the fibreglass, multi-storied skyscrapers, the American office is not as pleasant for its women secretaries, lawyers and other professionals as its air-conditioning, carpeted and muted decor makes it appear.
About 42% of federally employed women were harassed in their jobs, stated a recent 2 year survey done by the Official Merits Protection Board. Another 60% of the members of the American Federation of State, Country and Municipal Employees said that sexual harassment was a frequent problem for them. And between 1981 and 1985, the number of such complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, established to monitor employment practices, shot up by 70%.
The complaints vary from the physical violence of rape and assault to the insidious harassment of unwanted pushing and touching, persistent sexual demands, offensive sexual comments, constant conversations containing sexual innuendoes and coarse language.
The offender usually makes his moves swiftly and silently, when there are no witnesses around. He is usually confident that fear, embarrassment, and often the hopelessness of the situation will keep the victim from making public complaints. And when complaints are made, he can use every defense that this grey area of social attitudes and innuendoes provide. When it is so hard for a rape victim to prove she has been violated, one can imagine how much harder it is for a victim of the less dramatic forms of violence to prove her case.
In such instances, if the offenders are their supervisors, women who resist of complain find themselves burdened with an increased workload, scathing work evaluation, unwarranted reprimands and sheer hostility. So many quit their jobs rather than go to court. When neither alternative seems feasible, they give in, quietly.