NOW Launches Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign
Moves Against Sexual Harassment

Protest at Appalachian State UniversityNOW's Women-Friendly Workplace campaign calls for employers to end sexual harassment and on-the-job violence against women. NOW activists will organize protests like this demonstration Boone (N.C.) chapter members and Appalachian State University students held. AP photo.

by Loretta A. Kane,
Field Director

On March 8, International Women's Day, NOW launched a major new campaign to end sexual harassment and other workplace abuses. The Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign affirms the organization's longtime commitment to ending employment discrimination.

"NOW was formed more than 30 years ago by women whose first visible success was to get daily newspapers to stop publishing sex-segregated employment advertisements," said NOW President Patricia Ireland.

"Now in our fourth decade, we are again looking to the private sector. We will take this campaign to businesses in every community throughout the country -- from Wall Street to Main Street. We will show companies that discrimination is bad business and bad for business."

The goal of the campaign is to encourage employers to provide safe workplaces free from sexual and racial harassment, sexual assault and sex and race discrimination.

With an estimated 61 million women in the paid civilian workforce, on-the-job abuses affect a large number of women. While Anita Hill's 1991 allegations against Clarence Thomas struck a chord that resonated throughout the country, surveys indicate that harassment, discrimination and sexual assault in the workplace continue to be a serious problem.

Experts conservatively estimate that at least 50 percent of U.S. women will experience sexual harassment in their work or academic careers. The price of harassment extends beyond the physical and emotional costs to women. According to a survey conducted by Working Woman magazine, a typical Fortune 500 company loses $6.7 million per year in absenteeism, low productivity and employee turnover resulting from on-the-job harassment.

Rape at Work

protest at Saks Fifth AvenueHigh-profile protesters who prompted Saks Fifth Avenue to settle with a female employee raped by a store security guard included, from left, New York State Sen. Catherine Abate, U.S. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., Carol Chandler, mother of the woman who was raped, and NOW New York City President Anne Connors. AP photo.

Recent reports of workplace abuses demonstrate the need for NOW's national campaign. The rape of a Saks Fifth Avenue employee is a case in point.

An assistant manager was raped by a security guard employed by Saks at the company's flagship store in Manhattan. Her attacker pled guilty and is serving time. He was a convicted rapist when Saks hired him and was reportedly the subject of sexual harassment complaints by other employees.

When the woman filed a civil lawsuit based on Saks' negligence in hiring the guard, Saks' defense was that she should be limited only to a workers' compensation claim. Not only would that approach treat rape as a normal risk of employment, it would limit any cash award to lost wages and medical bills. If successful, Saks would not have owed any money damages for the plaintiff's pain and suffering and would have escaped all liability for punitive damages -- both strong incentives to listen and act on harassment complaints. In addition, she would have been denied the right to a trial by jury.

Thanks in part to the efforts of NOW New York City, Saks retreated from the workers' compensation defense and settled the case. However, employers across the country often try to hide behind workers' compensation laws when women employees are assaulted as a result of their employers' negligence. Courts in Massachusetts and Illinois have allowed employers to limit women's claims in this way.

The Women-Friendly Workplace pledge calls on employers to take action to prevent assaults on the job and asks employers to promise not to hide their negligence behind workers' compensation laws should attacks occur.

Moving Mitsubishi

The plight of workers at Mitsubishi's plant in Normal, Ill., is another high-profile example of hostile conditions faced by many women. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed the largest sexual harassment lawsuit in its history alleging pervasive sexual harassment at the plant. The EEOC alleges that some 300 to 500 women have been verbally harassed and physically assaulted by co-workers and supervisors.

In addition to the EEOC action, 29 women filed a private, civil suit against Mitsubishi also alleging sexual harassment. NOW, in coalition with Rainbow/PUSH and other advocacy groups, is pressuring Mitsubishi to settle the suits responsibly and expand opportunities for women and people of color. As a result of NOW pickets and public pressure, Mitsubishi has made significant concessions.

Seeking pledges

"One out of two women will be sexually harassed, and that's one too many," Ireland said. "The Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign demands zero-tolerance for harassment, discrimination and assault, which shouldn't be a radical expectation."

NOW will distribute an employer's pledge that includes a promise to adhere to basic minimal standards for a Women-Friendly Workplace. NOW also plans to distribute hundreds of thousands of consumer pledges so individuals can promise to support businesses that are women-friendly.

Information on the Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign and pledge cards are available from the NOW Action Center 202-331-0066, on NOW's Web site at or through local chapters.

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