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Poll: Vt. Men, Republicans & Seniors Less Likely To See Or Experience Sexual Harassment At Work

A graph that shows the gender breakdown of respondents who answered No, Yes or Not Sure to if they had seen or experienced Sexual harassment in a Vermont workplace or insitution.
Kyle Blair
Vermont PBS
The October 2018 VPR - Vermont PBS Poll asked respondents: "Have you personally experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in a Vermont workplace or institution?"

In an October VPR - Vermont PBS poll of more than 600 Vermonters, 26 percent answered "yes" when asked if they had personally experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in a Vermont workplace or institution. Some Vermonters seem to find that figure surprising — but what they disagree on is whether it seems too high or too low. 

When it comes to understanding those differences, both demographics and terminology seem to be at play.

Walking down Church Street in Burlington on a recent Wednesday, the Sipe family captured these phenomena perfectly.

Patty Sipe and her husband Mike are retirees living in Richmond. “It’s kinda high," Patty Sipe said, walking with her family on Church Street in Burlington on a recent weekday. To hear that one in four Vermonters have seen or experienced sexual harassment at work, she said, “I'm surprised."

“Terribly high,” her husband Mike added. “All the places I’ve worked over my 40-some year career, I haven’t noticed any of it.”

Before retiring, Mike Sipe worked at a CPA firm, an investment advisory firm, and a company he owned himself.

“But I hear those types of statistics and I don’t know what it all includes," he said. "If somebody looks at somebody and smiles and they take that wrong, is that sexual harassment?”

The poll did not define sexual harassment in its question.

Mike and Patty’s daughter Bridget had a different take.

“I actually think that’s lower than I would expect,” she said, eyebrows raised.  “I actually would have thought that number would be higher, and I think it probably is higher. And I think that’s probably reported cases, right? So I actually suspect that that number is much greater.”

Credit Emily Corwin / VPR
The Sipe family discussed sexual harassment poll results with VPR on Church Street in Burlington.

Sipe was in town from Seattle, visiting her parents. Before moving West, Sipe says she worked in Vermont for roughly eight years.

“Have you been sexually harassed?” her father asked her.

“No! I actually haven’t. I haven’t experienced it,” Bridget said, “Although that’s where I’m saying, you know, it’s a fine line. Right? Like what constitutes? Have I had — have there been innuendos? ... The nuances to this conversation are interesting. Because yes, have I experienced something where I’d say, 'wha— that was a fine line,' with, kind of what’s acceptable or what should be appropriate in a workplace or work environment, or what’s comfortable with me?” Bridget squinted. “But yes, nothing to the extent where I would feel unsafe, or threatened.”

A 2016 report by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recognized that many people do not think certain kinds of unwelcome and offensive sexually-based behaviors are “sexual harassment.” In fact, the EEOC reported that when surveys asked employees about specific sexually-based behaviors, the rates rose considerably.

As for what accounts for the difference between Bridget’s and her parents’ reactions to the poll, Bridget wondered if it might be generational.

The VPR - Vermont PBS Poll suggests she may be right. Both younger people and women were more likely to report seeing or experiencing sexual harassment in a Vermont workplace or institution.

As for politics, independents were the most likely to say they’d seen or experienced harassment, with Democratic-leaning voters close behind. Republican-leaning voters were the least likely to respond in the affirmative.

Vermont does not appear to be an outlier. The VPR - Vermont PBS Poll’s overall 26 percent figure is roughly in line with results from the national NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist Poll taken last year.

Despite the poll results, not all young people were surprised to see "only" one in four Vermonters had witnessed or experienced sexual harassment at work, as Bridget Sipe was. Walking elbow-to-elbow down Church street at the same time as the Sipe family were twins Virginia and Kate Farley, and their friend Katarina Lisaius — all roughly a generation younger than Sipe.

Unlike Bridget, they say the poll’s number sounds accurate, or even high, adding that their experiences at work have been positive. But Lisaius, a political staffer, wonders — what about outside of work?

“Walking down Church Street or going to a restaurant or something, if someone says something weird to you or makes you feel uncomfortable — that actually happens all of the time!” Liasaius said.

And all three say for them, sexual harassment is much more familiar in public spaces than it is at the workplace.

The VPR - Vermont PBS Poll logo with green bar graphic
Explore the VPR - Vermont PBS Poll results from October 2018 here: https://bit.ly/2zTX3MP

The VPR - Vermont PBS Poll asked hundreds of Vermonters questions to learn about their thoughts on key issues and how they feel about candidates for statewide office. Explore the full results of the October 2018 poll here.

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