Posted by: Amelia | July 25, 2007

Workplace Harassment Knows No Age

E.J. Graff, who is a Senior Researcher at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, has an article in Good Housekeeping on sexual harassment of working teenagers.  The GH pdf version is here, and a longer version is on the Schuster website here.  According to Census figures, almost 80% of teenagers have a job at some point during their high school careers.  Graff cites a 2005 study that, while too small to be conclusive, shows that as much as half of working teenage girls may be experiencing sexual harassment.  Multiply those numbers, and that’s a lot of harassment.  But teens are in a uniquely disadvantaged position to fight back, Graff says:

Most teenagers work in low-wage restaurant, retail, or service jobs, where they’re likely to be overseen by transient supervisors or managers who are themselves poorly trained, low-skilled, and poorly paid. Their bosses too often ignore sexually tinged behavior, dismissing it as harmless flirtation. But it’s not flirtation when adult men talk about sex to teenage girls (or boys), comment on their bodies, or grab, grope, or proposition those high school students regularly. Psychologists who specialize in sexual predators describe this as “grooming” behavior: These men are seeing how much they can get away with, pushing further each time.

New to the working world, teens may not be aware of procedures for filing a complaint, or may be too intimidated to make use of them.  They may think they will be fired (and in one of Graff’s most harrowing anecdotes, the harassed girls needed job credit for school and feared they would not be able to graduate if they complained).  I wonder, too, what long term social and economic impact harassment at such a young age can have on the victims.

Solutions are elusive.  One law professor thinks teens ought to receive special legal protection:

“They’re used to doing what mom and dad said, they’re used to doing what teachers said, they’re used to doing what coach said,” explains Jennifer Drobac, an Indiana University law professor and former employment attorney.10 “Yet the legal system expects them to confront their first workplace authority figure, and say, ‘That’s completely inappropriate conduct on your part.’ Well, in any other setting, that could get them a detention, a week being grounded, or time out.”

Drobac believes that this is unrealistic from a legal system that “often treats minors as lacking capacity for many things: driving, drinking, voting, access to some kinds of medical attention without parental permission.”

Litigation certainly ought to be encouraged, both to vindicate victims and to increase companies’ self-oversight.  Is there any way to change the culture that generates this harassment in the first place?  I am usually an optimist, but here I am stymied.  One of Graff’s cited cases gave me déjà vu:

In 2002, at age 17, Deborah Healy started her first job, as a cashier at a Springfield, Illinois Burlington Coat Factory—where she found it very hard to stand up for herself. The shoe department manager “was really friendly,” she said, repeatedly asking her personal questions that made her uncomfortable. And one time, when she was alone with him in a locked room as he counted out her cash drawer, he insisted that she sit on his lap. “I just did it. I sat on his leg, really lightly, for a second and then ran to the other side of room. I thought that was my only option.”

This precise scenario happened to an older woman I know when she was 16 – in the 1960s.  Harassment laws have come a long way since then, but they have not been able to change the perpetrators’ behavior.  We still have a long way to go toward fixing this problem.

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