Sexual harassment is... a form of sex discrimination. It is illegal, it can devastate those who experience it, and it often destroys the morale and productivity of the work environment. It is widespread in the fire service, and the numbers are not getting better. As many as 85% of women firefighters have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work or as volunteers. (1)
Sexual harassment is... a power play that is degrading, humiliating and intimidating to its victim. It is based on aggression and hostility, not sexual desire. The physical appearance and behavior of the victim do not cause harassment. Sexual harassment is not "natural attraction," a "compliment" to the victim, or a "normal" way for men to react to women in the workplace. It is a way men assert their dominance over women and, in some cases, try to force women to leave the job. Compliments that are welcomed, attention that is mutually desired, and truly friendly jokes and teasing do not leave either participant feeling uneasy or intimidated. Sexual harassment does.
Sexual harassment is... an intimate violation that often occurs without witnesses. Its victims generally feel powerless to stop it, which is what allows it to happen in the first place. Women in non-traditional jobs, who are often subjected to strong pressure to "go along to get along," and to fit in and be "one of the guys," often lack support in trying to stop workplace harassment. Women firefighters may come to believe that harassment is what they have to expect as a newcomer or minority in a male-dominated workplace.
Sexual harassment is... anything from blatant acts such as physical assault and quid pro quo pressures ("Sleep with me, or you won't get hired") to more subtle behavior such as persistent, unwanted requests for dates, displays of pornography in the workplace, and jokes that put women in subordinate, sexual roles or call attention to their gender.
Sexual harassment is... a problem for both legal and practical reasons. Employers are liable for acts of harassment that occur in the workplace, whether or not they themselves knew of the acts. Harassment makes the workplace hostile and unproductive for many in it. It can cause stress, poor job performance, heavy use of sick leave, and high employee turnover. Complaints and litigation result in time-consuming investigations and create poor public relations.
Even though it is illegal and a violation of most employer's policies, sexual harassment is rarely reported. Only about five percent of victims report incidents of harassment. Instead, a victim is much more likely to leave her job, request a transfer, or suffer in silence and hope the problem goes away. That this is true in the fire service is evidenced by comments from women firefighters who were harassed but chose not to report it:
There are many reasons women do not report sexual harassment. Some are complex and subtle, having to do with how women are brought up to view themselves and to behave. Others reflect the dynamics of a male-dominated workplace. Following are some of the most common reasons sexual harassment is not reported.
A fire chief is therefore on shaky ground if he or she believes the department to be free of sexual harassment simply because no one has reported it. Ideally, an employee who is harassed will confront the harasser, report the behavior to a supervisor, or seek support from counselors or from friends who have been harassed. But most victims of harassment are disempowered and feel they have few options. This leads them to react in ways that neither stop the behavior nor let the employer know a problem exists: denial, trivializing or excusing the behavior, or trying to appease the harasser in the hope that he will stop. If a harassment victim takes any action, it is usually either to request a transfer or to quit her job.
Federal law defines illegal sexual harassment as:
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct or sexual nature... when
(1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment,
(2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or
(3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. (3)
It is impossible to make a comprehensive list of all behaviors that could constitute sexual harassment. Many situations must be examined individually; what is harassment in one case may not be in others. This can seem confusing until one focuses on the key concepts: "unwelcome," "intimidating or hostile," and "interfering with work performance." What is important is the effect of the questionable behavior on its victim. Behavior that is highly amusing to one person may be very unwelcome to another.
In cases that go to court, the court must determine whether the victim was offended by the behavior, and whether that reaction was "reasonable." Courts have differing ways of determining what is "reasonable." Some use a "reasonable person" standard: besides being actually offensive to the victim, the harasser's conduct must be such that it would affect the work performance and psychological well-being of a reasonable individual. But because a woman's perspective may differ substantially from a man's, some courts have adopted a "reasonable woman" standard instead.
A "reasonable person" standard does not consider the difference between women's and men's views of appropriate conduct. For example, in one study, 67% of men surveyed said they would be complimented if they were propositioned by a woman at work. When women were asked if they would take such a proposition from a man in the workplace as a compliment, only 17% said yes. (4)
Many fire chiefs find it difficult to learn of harassment going on in their department. Harassment, after all, rarely goes on in front of those who would take steps to stop it. Other chiefs may be reluctant to deal with sexual harassment at all, believing that writing policies or providing training will increase the number of harassment complaints. But a head-in-the-sand approach is counterproductive: it will only make things worse, and it ignores management's legal responsibility for providing a harassment-free workplace.
Complaints of harassment may indeed increase slightly for a short time after anti-harassment training is done. This is a good sign. It means employees have learned that they don't have to put up with harassment as a price of their job, and that management will support them in getting problems resolved -- not blame them for being the whistleblower. Employees who are knowledgeable about harassment and confident in management's stance against it are much more likely to try to resolve harassment informally, before it becomes a major problem.
Fire service leaders should work aggressively to prevent sexual harassment in their departments, and to deal with it promptly and effectively if it occurs. The attitude from the top should be one of "zero tolerance" of inappropriate, harmful workplace behavior. Following are some basic steps for managers to take in this area.
NETWORKING THE WOMEN OF TODAY'S FIREFIGHTING WORLD, AND PROVIDING RESOURCES TO HELP BUILD THE FIRE SERVICE OF THE FUTURE