AUGUSTA, Maine — One in four Maine teens experienced sexual harassment at work in part-time jobs while still in school, a recent study found, a result that researchers and state officials find troubling.
“What was good to find out is that none were the most serious, the rape or attempted rape categories,” said University of Southern Maine professor Susan Fineran, principal author of the study. “But it does show that workplace sexual harassment poses a significant problem for teenagers.”
The study surveyed 515 teens ages 13 to 18 who worked part time while going to school in Maine in 2008 and 2009. Fineran, who teaches at the USM School of Social Work and Women and Gender studies, said she partnered with the Maine Department of Labor to draw the sample from the work permits database at the agency.
The study looked at 20 types of unwanted and uninvited behaviors that range from verbal sexual harassment and sexist comments to groping and actual sexual assault. It found that 28 percent of the girls and 23 percent of the boys experienced some level of sexual harassment.
Fineran said national studies have found as high as 60 percent of adult women experience some sexual harassment in the workplace and as many as 15 percent of adult men. She said this study of teens may be the only one of its kind.
“At least I have not yet found another one,” she said.
Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said the lack of data about teens in the workplace was one reason the agency cooperated in the study. She said the Department of Labor is concerned about the numbers but also relieved that none was of the most serious nature.
“Let’s not forget that for 75 percent of them there were no problems to report,” she said. “For most of them, it was a positive experience in the workplace.”
But Fortman said she is very concerned about the harassment that is going on and stresses it is illegal. She said both employers and those who harass could face legal action. The study will affect the training programs the department has for employers and advice the agency gives to schools about working teens.
“I think we want to improve the awareness of this among everyone, and that includes parents,” she said. “It’s very important that they talk with their teens about what is going on where they work.”
Fortman said the study has reinforced her opinion that some occupations pose more of a risk to teens than others and that parents should know about the risks before agreeing to allow their teen to work.
“Every year we have requests to remove the prohibition on minors working in motels and hotels, working in the rooms,” she said. “We should make sure that we limit the exposure of minors to adults where these situations could occur.”
Those who harassed girls in the study were generally older than those of the boys. Only about 10 percent of the boys but a third of the girls described their harassers as being 30 years of age or older.
“The issues that we are looking at affect these teens in many different ways,” Fineran said. “We are looking at the impact on how they do in school and on the impact on their career choices.”
She said the data appear to indicate that the effects are stronger and longer-lasting on girls than boys. She concludes in the study that sexual harassment of girls may have greater negative implications for future career development and impeded academic performance.
“We need to do follow-up, and we hope to study this on at least a regional basis,” Fineran said. “Like a lot of research, it raises more questions that we need to answer.”
The study concludes that boys experience fewer adverse health outcomes as a result of harassment, most likely because they are harassed less frequently. The study said this is especially true for younger boys.
Fineran said that in addition to employers needing training in how to prevent harassment and what to do if it does occur in their workplace, there needs to be a greater awareness in the schools about the potential problems teens face at work while still in school.
“And I think we need to find a way to get parents more involved in talking with their teens that are working,” Fortman said. “We need to get everyone involved.”