A Startling Study Claims That Sexual Harassment in the Office Is as Common as the Coffee Break

UPDATED 06/08/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/08/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

Sexual harassment in the workplace can be as seemingly innocent as a suggestive joke—or as brutal as attempted rape. Feminists call it one of the major social problems facing working women, who today increasingly find themselves in close quarters with men. Now a two-year survey of federal workers by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (an agency created by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978) has estimated that one out of every four workers—women and men alike—has received uninvited sexual attention. Productivity losses, resignations and health problems caused by that hanky-panky cost taxpayers a "probably conservative" $189 million over the two-year period, argues MSPB Chairwoman Ruth Prokop, who initiated the study. A Texan, Prokop first came to Washington as a student in 1959 and has been there ever since. Divorced, the 42-year-old lawyer lives with her daughter in northwest Washington. The provocative report is a parting shot for Prokop—as a Democrat and Carter appointee, she submitted her resignation to President Reagan in April. Before returning to private practice in July, Prokop discussed her findings with PEOPLE's Dolly Langdon.

Just how widespread is sexual harassment in the federal workplace?

In the two-year period, 42 percent of all women surveyed had encountered some form of sexual harassment. Surprisingly, 15 percent of the male force had encountered it as well.

But aren't sexual innuendos between men and women normal or even inevitable?

The key word is "uninvited." Harassment covers everything from unwanted sexual teasing, jokes and touching to overtures for sexual favors. Obviously, the most severe form of unwanted behavior is rape—so we put that in a class by itself.

Is rape widespread in the workplace?

One in every 100 women who responded had faced an attempted rape or an actual assault. When you think of the actual numbers, the total becomes quite alarming. It translates into 9,000 female workers who were being subjected to rape or attempted rape. We estimate that close to 300,000 female workers in government experienced some form of lesser harassment.

Are all harassers heterosexual?

Of those who had been harassed, approximately 22 percent of the males said they had been harassed by other males. Only three percent of the women were harassed by other females.

What happens to workers who reject advances?

The consequences included job transfers and dismissals. One woman said when she ignored her boss's advances, he began to treat her cruelly; for example, he made her take four hours of dictation, stay late to transcribe it, then threw it all away in her presence because "he didn't need it."

Who are the harassers?

The typical male harasser is married, older and a co-worker not in a direct supervisory line. A man, on the other hand, is typically harassed by a woman who is younger. She's a co-worker too and usually married.

Who are the victims?

A woman 19 or under is three times as likely to be sexually assaulted as a woman 55 or older; young people don't have the clout to resist and are least likely to complain. Women who've had some graduate school are at the top of the scale of those harassed. These highly educated women are vying for jobs that were traditionally male.

What can a worker do about unwanted sexual attention?

We recommend assertive behavior: direct confrontation, like saying "Please keep your hands off me." Less than three percent of those surveyed actually filed a formal complaint, but, encouragingly, those who did had a pretty high success rate—something was done about the problem in 60 to 65 percent of the cases.

Has your study led to any improvement?

Our main intention is to raise awareness rather than to offer a solution. But the bottom line is that federal workers don't believe that management really cares about their complaints. I'm hopeful that the report will encourage the private sector to do the same kind of study. Of the 23,000 workers who were mailed our confidential questionnaire, an astonishing 85 percent responded. If workers are made aware of the remedies and believe that management is serious about eradicating the problem, then we're down the road to correcting the situation.

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