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October 28, 2004

Sexual Harassment: Part of job for Some

Sexual harassment is part of the job for waitresses and nurses, according to Lisa Huebner, a teaching fellow in the University’s women’s studies program. During a brown bag lunch held Oct. 20, Huebner compared perceptions, definitions and experiences of sexual behaviors in the workplace by nurses and waitresses — a group that is not as well studied as professional women.

According to Huebner, most cases of sexual harassment tend to be mundane occurrences rather than extreme or deviant overtures. “My guess is that most of us have experienced sexual harassment at some point in our lives,” she said. “More often than not, we blow it off, or even worse, we start to question ourselves on our own perceptions.”

The definition of sexual harassment relies heavily on perceptions, she said, which vary among victims. One person may label an inappropriate gesture as flirtation while another considers it sexual harassment. “We know that sexual harassment is a pattern of social behavior that causes momentary discomfort in the best case and terrorizes in the worse case.”

Huebner defined everyday harassment as sexual pressure that is repeated, unsolicited, non-consensual, unwelcome and makes a victim feel uncomfortable.

Huebner studied service jobs such as nurses and waitresses because, in part, both professions replicated traditional feminine expectations: waitress as server and nurse as caregiver. And both employ women predominantly.

She found that waitresses and nurses experience behaviors that conventionally are defined as sexual harassment, but they label and describe these experiences differently. For example, waitresses said that the sexualized, service-oriented nature of their jobs could help fuel sexual harassment. Since their jobs hinge on their abilities to make customers happy, they have to navigate a number of one-on-one transactions. Waitresses feel they work at a disadvantage because there’s no job security because they can be replaces easily. Expressing a general sentiment, one worker told Huebner that sexual harassment “goes with the territory. You shouldn’t have to think that way, but that’s the way society is and life goes on.”

Conversely, when nurses experience sexual harassment from patients, they call it “a part of the disease process.” For example, one nurse told Huebner about a male patient who exposed himself while masturbating before prostrate surgery. The nurse said: “I think that’s more his fear on where he is at in the disease process,” she said. When Huebner asked nurses what they like best about their job, the overwhelming response patient care. But patient care often includes patients who attach themselves inappropriately to their nurses. “It comes with the job,” one nurse told Huebner.

Huebner’s research showed behaviors that might be perceived as inappropriate or as sexual harassment are so entrenched in the work culture that they become normalized and expected.

-Mary Ann Thomas

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 5

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