Human rights officials in Montgomery County said it was a typical case of sexual harassment.
Judy Stevens (not her real name), a college-educated typist, applied for a secretarial job. Her prospective employer asked if she knew shorthand, and Stevens said no. He hired her anyway. After she began work, the boss began making sexual advances, which she strongly rejected. He fired her, giving as a reason that she could not take shorthand. Stevens complained to the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission.
The problem of sexual harassment is just beginning to surface in the consciousness of workers' and employers. Although discrimination on the basis of sex has been illegal since 1964, it was not until this year that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission officially declared that sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination. Final regulations for handling sexual harassment complaints were issued in mid-November.
In Montgomery County, officials of the Human Relations Commission say they have taken complaints of sexual harassment for the last six years, but the number of complaints and inquiries on the subject picked up significantly in 1980. Six complaints were filed this year, far more than in any other year. Three of those were filed in the last three months.
But the real measure of concern, said Freda Mauldin, the commission's deputy director, is the greatly increased number of requests for information.
"We get five to 10 requests for information for every complaint filed," Mauldin said.
Mauldin said the commission receives both heterosexual and homosexual complaints from both men and women. Two of the six complaints filed this year were by men.
Perhaps not surprisingly, she said, most complaints are settled privately between employe and employer.
"Almost all are settled immediately because the employer doesn't want the publicity," Mauldin said. In a typical settlement the employer agrees to give the individual a good recommendation and a sum of money, usually several hundred ollars, to cover the period of time while the person seeks a new job. In return, the complainant agrees to withdraw the complaint from the commission.
So far, commission officials say, no complaints of sexual harassment have been filed against the county government. Nevertheless, County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist said at a recent seminar co-sponsored by the commission and the Montgomery County Commission for Women that he will authorize the women's commission to conduct a survey of county employes to determine whether they have experienced sexual harassment.
A similar survey was taken last year of some 23,000 federal employes. An astounding 85 percent of those surveyed returned the 12-page questionnaire, according to Alison Shumate, an official of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Results are still being tabulated, but preliminary data show that one in every four women surveyed experienced some harassment during the last two years, Shumate said. The study also shows that women in higher income brackets were harassed almost as much as everyone else and that women with more education were harassed more than others. Shumate said the results dispel the myth that only young, naive women newly entered in the job market are harassed sexually.
At the seminar, a panel of experts discussed the nature of the problem and what can be done about it.
"Sexual harassment has little to do with sex and nothing to do with love," said Paul Ephross, a social work professor at the University of Maryland. "It has everything to do with power. And the difference between flirting and sexual harassment is that flirting, however clumsy, speaks of love and harassment, however graceful, speaks of power. The person who knows the difference is the person involved."
Ephross said sexual harassment is particularly degrading because "it turns the contractual situation of work into a kind of wage-slave situation." Most Americans, he said, "are one job away from poverty" and simply must protect their jobs. Sexual harassment forces them to do it at the expense of personal dignity. Ephross said many victims give in because they see no alternative.
Mary F. Costello, the equal employment opportunity officer for Mack Trucks Inc., said employers can do many things to help prevent sexual harassment.
Costello said employers should let employes know they care about working conditions, should post guidelines for reporting incidents they believe stemmed from sexual harassments and hold seminars for men and women workers for informal discussion of the problem. She said the guidelines should list both a male and a female counselor for workers to go to with complaints. She said guidelines should specify a punishment and also specify that complaints are confidential.
The bottom line, she said, is money. Employes who have been harassed have higher rates of absenteeism and tardiness, and have been shown to have been accident-prone and less productive. Preventing sexual harassment "is just plain good business," Costello said.
Joan Thompson, director of women's concerns for the Department of Education, warned women to be careful of how they dress and how they behave since both can be factors in determining the credibility of a complaint. She urged employes who are considering filing a complaint not to talk about it with coworkers, to keep records of work assignments and to obtain copies of their work from the files. She warned, too, that a worker who files a complaint against a boss often is not supported by coworkers.
"Don't sleep with the boss," she said. "It's bad for your working relationship with your coworkers and bad on your reputation," and makes filing a sexual harassment case at a later time very difficult. She also warned that while a complaint may not become part of an employe's personnel file, "it remains in the hallway. Yes, people may well be angry at you for filing a complaint."
Because of the headaches of filing a complaint, commission officials worry that victims will become discouraged.
Referring to Thompson's remarks, Mauldin said after the seminar that she was "unhappy with the final feeling because it sounded like you are putting your neck on the line" by filing a complaint.
"People are afraid," said Carol Haynes, a commission staff member."Certainly there are a lot of women who just leave and don't do anything. They are embarrassed by the whole issue. In a way that's a problem because that perpetuates it."