In 1994, the Merit Systems Protection Board performed a third study. In this study, 13,200 randomly selected federal employees were surveyed. To the seven categories of behavior used to ascertain the frequency of sexual harassment in the 1980 and 1987 surveys, stalking was added. As in previous surveys, respondents were asked whether they had experienced any of the listed behaviors during the past two years. The numbers of federal employees reporting incidents of sexual harassment increased slightly from 1987: "Some 44 percent of the women and 19 percent of the men who responded to our survey in 1994 reported have experienced harassing behaviors during the preceding 2 years." (US Merit Systems Protection Board, 1995, p. 12)

One of the major questions is, "What exactly can be titled as sexual harassment?" Do the definitions of sexual harassment used in the Merit studies differ from the legal definitions in at least one significant way? Do those legal definitions emphasize sexual harassment as sex discrimination or do these definitions lead to a de-emphasis on the sexual nature of the harassment and an emphasis on its gendered nature?     This paper discusses the importance of defining and dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace on the national (federal) level as perceived by the major institutional researchers that add to the common realization of the matter.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Merit's study, besides its limitation to federal employees, is the fact that the data on incidence of sexual harassment are based on the number of respondents who said they had experienced any of the behaviors in the seven categories. Thus, the method of identifying victims for this report involved a self-defining process on the part of respondents. In addition, the survey was retrospective, and so it has the weaknesses already mentioned associated with such studies.

The main strengths of the survey include the size of its sample and the sampling technique, which is much more reliable than convenience sampling or self-selecting sampling .A number of studies of workplace sexual harassment have been carried out by academics. Merit's study on the nature and frequency of sexual harassment is summarized in their yearly publication, Redbook survey. The data on which the book is based were collected in the summer of 1994.

The sample was 1,257 randomly selected working men and women in Los Angeles County. Gutek selected eight categories of behavior that might be considered sexual harassment:


sexual comments meant to be complimentary


sexual comments meant to be insulting


looks and gestures meant to be complimentary


looks and gestures meant to be insulting


nonsexual touching


sexual touching


socializing or dating as a requirement of the job


sex as a requirement of the job

As one can see, defining sexual harassment is of vital importance to the sole realization of what exactly can be called the problem and how to deal with that issue at the work place. It is important at this point to determine what alternative studies (besides Merit's one) have been conducted and what study and definition of sexual harassment should be chosen and trusted as a 'true' one.

In her survey, Gutek asked respondents whether they thought each category constituted sexual harassment. More than go percent of men and more than go percent of women believed that categories 7 and 8 constituted sexual harassment. There was less agreement about the other categories, and divergence between men and women. But more than 50 percent of both sexes believed that categories 6, 2, and 4 constituted sexual harassment. Women were more likely to label each of the categories sexual harassment than were men.

Given the lack of consensus on the definition of sexual harassment, Gutek (1985) took three different measurements to try to determine the frequency of sexual harassment in the workplace. She first "assumed all the behaviors listed . . . have the potential of being considered sexual harassment and then could treat everyone who reports any of them as a victim of sexual harassment. This very generous definition undoubtedly overstates the amount of sexual harassment." (p. 34) This first definition seems similar to that used in the Redbook study.

However, Gutek used two other definitions: "A second way of defining harassment was to label as sexually harassed those people who experience a behavior and consider that class of behavior to be sexual harassment. Yet a third way of assessing the magnitude of sexual harassment was to have an outside rater determine whether each experience was sexual harassment, on the assumption that a person can be harassed and not know it." (p. 45) Thus, Gutek used a variety of ways of understanding what her data showed, since she realized that it was not clear just what they showed. This kind of caution is unusual in sexual harassment research.

According to the second definition of sexual harassment, 37.3 percent of the men and 53.1 percent of the women experienced an incident of sexual harassment sometime in their working lives. Based on further interviews with those reporting incidents of sexual harassment, the outside raters did their own evaluation and found that 21 percent of the women and 9 percent of the men had experienced sexual harassment. As one can see, Gutek offers some clear examples of what type of behavior can be classified as sexual harassment at the work place. However, we have to study this issue further in order to determine what alternatives are available to eliminate the improper conduct at work. 

Fitzgerald et al. (1988) recognized the difficulty of accurately determining the pervasiveness of sexual harassment from empirical studies as long as all use different instruments in their measurements. Fitzgerald et al. formulated what they call the "Sexual Experiences Questionnaire" (SEQ) in an attempt to produce something that everyone could use. The SEQ was designed to identify the frequency of various types of harassment. For the authors' operational definition, behaviors are divided into five categories, with unequal numbers of behaviors listed under each. The categories are:

1. Gender harassment. Generalized sexist remarks and behavior designed not necessarily to elicit sexual cooperation, but to convey insulting, degrading, or sexist attitudes about women.

2. Seductive behavior Inappropriate and offensive sexual advances. Although such behavior is unwanted and offensive, there is no penalty explicitly attached to the woman's negative response; nor does this category include sexual bribery.

3. Sexual coercion. Coercion of sexual activity or other sex-linked behavior by threat of punishment;

4. Sexual bribery. Solicitation of sexual activity or other sex-linked behavior (e.g., dating) by promise of rewards.

5. Sexual imposition. Sexual imposition (e.g., attempts to fondle, touch, kiss, or grab) or sexual assault.

It has been said that this schema coincides with the legal definition of sexual harassment, but it does not. One element of the EEOC definition that is absent from this definition is repeated. This is not evident in the questions asked of the students. So, what these survey results show is that there is rather a lot of sexual behavior directed toward women students in academia and toward women in the workplace. This is not surprising.

They also show that there is some coercion and some abuse of power. Two pilot studies with students as subjects using the SEQ showed that of one sample, about 50 percent of the women responding answered once or more than once for at least one of the items in the questionnaire, and of another sample, 76 percent responded positively to at least one item. However, because of the lack of precision in the questions, it does not seem that any reliable rates of frequency of sexual harassment could be derived from use of the SEQ.

This paper showed how vital it is to properly define the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace in order to enable organizations fight the instances of improper conduct on the national (federal) level as perceived by the major institutional researchers that add to the common realization of the matter. Sexual harassment is not only a legal concept. It is a moral concept, as well. The concept of sexual harassment seems to include within its borders disparate kinds of behavior that are wrong for different reasons. Some of them are abuses of power. Some are invasions of privacy. However, as long as they result in the imposition of disadvantageous terms and conditions in employment or education because of sex, they should continue to be prohibited by Title VII and Title IX. It may be that hostile environment sexual harassment will come to be known simply as gender harassment, so that its association with sexual harassment will become a thing of the past.

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