A U.S. district judge in Florida has issued a ground-breaking opinion broadening the definion of sexual harassment in the workplace to include the posting of soft- and hard-core pornography and routine uttering of demeaning remarks about women by male colleagues and supervisors.
Judge Howell Melton of the Middle District of Florida ruled that Jacksonville Shipyards Inc. violated the civil rights of Lois Robinson, a welder, by failing to maintain a work environment that was free of sex discrimination and harassment. Her case was litigated by the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund. Melton ordered the shipyard to institute a comprehensive sexual harassment policy written by the NOW group.
The ruling itself, however, is dismaying reading in that it documents in sickening detail the work conditions that exist in some male-dominated industries in which women are trying to work. Expert witnesses testified that women who are in small minorities of a work force are particularly at risk because they are isolated. At Jacksonville Shipyards only six women were employed as skilled workers in 1986, compared with 846 men. Some employees described it as a "boys club," which certainly seems to fit.
"Pictures of nude and partially nude women appear throughout the JSI workplace in the form of magazines, plaques on the wall, photographs torn from magazines and affixed to the wall or attached to calendars supplied by advertising tool-supply companies," wrote Melton.
"Management employees from the very top down condoned these displays; often they had their own pictures."
The company is a federal contractor. Pictures of women engaged in lesbian sex were in the shipfitters trailer on board the USS Saratoga in January 1985 and female nudes were in the toolroom trailer on board the ship. After Robinson complained about a calendar on the shipfitters trailer, the words "Men Only" were painted on the trailer door.
Co-workers indulged in extremely crude sexual remarks to Robinson and to several other women workers who testified on her behalf. They told of numerous instances of being pinched or touched by men on the job and being the object of sexual ridicule. One of the women was so bothered by the men during a bus ride that she swore at one of them. She was reprimanded by her supervisor the following day for swearing. One male co-worker regularly said things like "there's nothing worse than having to work around women." He ridiculed Robinson in front of Navy fire watch personnel, and when she complained to him, he turned that into a new subject of ridicule.
Melton, who was appointed by President Carter, was particularly critical of the shipyard management for failing to take the women's complaints seriously and said that management's stance "condoned and encouraged further harassment."
Melton cited extensively the testimony of Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and one of the nation's leading experts on the effects of stereotyping. "Stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination are the three basic kinds of category-based responses," he wrote. "Stereotyping exists primarily as a thought process; prejudice develops as an emotional or an evaluative process, primarily negative in nature, while discrimination manifests itself as a behavioral response.
"When a superior categorizes a female based on her sex, that superior evaluates her in terms of characteristics that comport with stereotypes assigned to women rather than in terms of her job skills and performance . . . . Dr. Fiske described the sex stereotyping at JSI as a situation of 'sex role spillover,' where the evaluation of women employees by their co-workers and supervisors takes place in terms of the sexuality of the women and their worth as sex objects rather than their merits as craft workers.
"Nonprofessional ambience imposes much harsher effect on women than on men. The general principle, as stated by Dr. Fiske, is 'when sex comes into the workplace, women are profoundly affected . . . in their job performance and in their ability to do their jobs without being bothered by it.' The effects encompass emotional upset, reduced job satisfaction, the deterrence of women from seeking jobs or promotions and an increase in women quitting jobs, getting transferred, or being fired because of the sexualization of the workplace."
Alison Whetherfeld, one of Robinson's attorneys, described the decision as one that "recognizes the impossible position many harassed women are in, in a very sensitive and unusual way." But the 98-page ruling is also a grim reminder of the awful conditions some women have to put up with to earn a decent living.