Perceptions of sexual harassment on the inside.

Author:Harrison, Jill

This article presents data from a larger two-year study that examines perceptions concerning barriers to recruitment, retention, and promotion of both male and female correctional officers at a New England state prison complex. The hypotheses explored in this paper are twofold: Perceptions of current recruitment practices differ by gender; and sexual harassment disproportionately affects female officers, which in turn negatively impacts their perceptions of staying in the field of corrections throughout the course of their career.

Prior research on these issues shows the extreme underrepresentation of women in law enforcement agencies, especially in high-ranking positions. For this reason, female officers were oversampled for this study. Of employed women in this state's department of correction, almost all serve as line officers without rank. Out of 1,000 officers in this state system, 100 are women. Of those women, there is one deputy, three deputy wardens, one training supervisor and one captain. In this small sample of randomly selected respondents of 23 male and 22 female full-time correctional officers, the data were analyzed to determine if there are perceptions based on gender that may shed some light on why women remain underrepresented in state correctional facilities such as this one. If the above hypotheses are correct, then these results can improve the rather small body of literature to date on sexual harassment and its effect on females' retention and their longevity in the field of corrections.

Literature Review

Although women have increased their representation in law enforcement from 2 percent in 1972 to 13 percent in 2000, women in this field, including corrections, have been historically underrepresented (Greene, 2000). One of the reasons for such limited female employment, is that the field is often associated with an aggressive, authoritarian image that is male and white. This may discourage women from entering the profession (Lonsway, 2001). Until recently, the role of women in law enforcement was restricted to social welfare-type jobs (working with juvenile and family problems), or occupations dealing with sexual assault investigations or female inmate supervision (Kakar, 2002).

Theories that incorporate the issue of low representation and worker longevity include those that examine the prevalence of sexual harassment. They tend to focus on three areas: the notion that women may be physically or mentally unable to handle the job; gender discrimination occurs at an institutional level; and job-related stress causes women to quit, and seek alternate career paths (Kakar, 2002). In the current study, combinations of all three of these reasons were found, but to varying degrees. This study's findings indicate that sexual harassment is still an issue predominantly perceived as a barrier for female correctional officers.

Work settings that have a higher ratio of men to women and are staffed by male supervisors might tolerate more sexual harassment. Examples of these work environments include military service, law enforcement, firefighting and construction. These occupations place a value on characteristics such as power, toughness, dominance, aggressiveness and competitiveness. Women may be seen as disrupting this culture of masculinity (Vogt et al., 2007). Even for women in the general work force, research indicates that "almost half of all women experience sexual harassment, at some point during their careers" (Vogt et al., 2007). In the 1970s, female police officers were told that because they were one of only a few women among a group of men, they may be "pinched, patted or played with." At the turn of the 20th century, women were concerned jail "matrons" and wore skirts, as did female police officers who were also given a handbag to carry their gun in (Rathbone, 2005). They were told they should not wear excessive makeup and suggestive clothing or use abrasive language. In short, they should not act or appear like men; they were told that maintaining their femininity would help them gain respect in their department (Rathbone, 2005).

With such conflicting roles, it was clear that women were not accepted as equals in policing or corrections and, if hired, held unequal positions while having to portray both masculine and feminine traits. Some argue that they "allowed" themselves to be sexually harassed in an attempt to fit in (Garcia, 2003). Some early studies indicate that this harassment and resistance to women in law enforcement stem from male officers who fear that women might violate departmental secrets about corruption and violence because they were outside the "old boy" inner circle (Kakar, 2002).

Bostock and Daley (2007) identify five categories of sexual harassment:

* Crude/offensive behavior (e.g., unwanted sexual jokes, stories, whistling, staring);

* Sexist behavior (e.g., insulting, offensive and condescending attitudes based on the gender of the person);

* Unwanted sexual attention (e.g., unwanted touching, fondling; asking for dates even though rebuffed);

* Sexual coercion (e.g., classic quid pro quo instances of job benefits or losses conditioned on sexual cooperation); and

* Sexual assault (e.g., unsuccessful attempts at and having sex without the respondent's consent and against his or her will).

When participants in their study were asked about these categories, 69 percent to 97 percent of the respondents were not aware that they had actually experienced sexual harassment. Instead, these elements were often thought of as part of a social bonding process where sexual comments and innuendos exchanged between male and female officers are thought to promote social cohesion and camaraderie rather than unlawful behavior.

Several negative work outcomes as a result of sexual harassment include decreased morale and job satisfaction, a decline in relationships with co-workers, and increased absenteeism and job loss. Negative mental health effects that may result from the stress of sexual harassment include depression, anxiety and substance abuse, as well as a variety of physical problems (Vogt et al., 2007; Griffin, 2006).

Further, studies suggest that sexual harassment in the work force is still underreported. Slonaker, Wendt and Kemper (2001) assert that there are three explanations for the lack of female officers reporting sexual harassment. First, women become embarrassed and may feel that they have somehow contributed to the treatment. Second, they are concerned that the allegations will result in their word against the harasser's word. Last, they are concerned about committing "professional suicide" (Slonaker et al., 2001). In addition, sexual harassment cases that are reported can become extremely costly for the agency or department, which may deter incidents from being fully investigated. In a 10-year period, the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department incurred nearly $19 million in costs defending a single sexual harassment suit brought about by a female officer who had been overlooked for a promotion (Slonaker et al., 2001).

Gender-based stereotypes are still prevalent in the work force, especially in male-dominated work settings. Stereotypes might be applied such that the mistake of one female officer becomes exaggerated and associated with all female officers (Seklecki and Paynich, 2007). Garcia (2003) finds that women are seen as "emotional and thus irrational, compassionate, cooperative, physically fragile, subjective, gentle and morally superior. Women do not possess the necessary masculine traits of rationality, aggressiveness, bravery, objectivity, suspicion and brutality required of good cops to fight crime and apprehend the enemy." Garcia makes it a point to show that previous studies indicate that only about 1 percent of law enforcement work is too physically demanding for women, while other studies could not show that physical strength was related to the ability of women to handle dangerous situations.

When looking at how higher ranking female law...

To continue reading