Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A New Study on Sexual Harassment And What It Tells Us

I learned about this study (pdf) through feministing.com. Jennifer L. Berdahl of University of Toronto carried out three studies on the interrelationship between masculine and feminine personality types and the amount of sexual harassment a person undergoes.

The background to her work is interesting: From those early days when sexual harassment was given a name and could be talked about a confusion reigned in the public debate about its meaning. What is sexual harassment? Isn't it just normal sexual attraction? Love affairs gone astray at work? Boys being boys and liking to pinch girls' butts? Can we ever legislate such behavior away? And so on.

On the other side of the argument, there was much concern that sexual harassment was a power tool, something superiors could use to exploit their subordinates and a way to stop women from advancing in the organization.

Berdahl's studies cast a little bit more light on this confusion. Her basic hypothesis is this: If sexual harassment is mostly a form of courting game then the women who get most harassed should be the types which the society generally regards as most sexually desirable, both physically and personality-wise. On the other hand, if sexual harassment is mostly a form of punishing or controlling women, then the women who get most harassed are not going to be of the type that the society generally regards as most sexually desirable. They are going to be the uppity women who need punishing.

Berdahl's studies did not address physical desirability in the experience of sexual harassment but the question of personality. Her study subjects (both men and women) were asked to self-test their personalities using a scale which is used to measure masculine and feminine characteristics. For instance, the following are regarded as desirable masculine characteristics in the United States: assertiveness, dominance and independence. On the other side, desirable feminine characteristics include warmth, deference and modesty. Note that the test results include the possibility that a person tests high in both the so-called masculine characteristics and the so-called feminine characteristics, or that a person tests low in both these groups.

If sexual harassment is mostly about sexual attraction, Berdahl reasons, the women who score high on the feminine characteristics should get harassed more. If, on the other hand, sexual harassment is mostly about punishing those individuals who deviate from their expected gender roles then the women with "masculine" characteristics should get harassed more.

This is the major question the studies address, although they also evaluate the same question in the context of men who get sexually harassed. But on the whole the men in Berdahl's studies don't find sexual harassment "harassing".

In other words, when the study subjects were asked about the occurrence of certain events in their lives (such as the telling of sexist jokes or unwanted sexual advances) and of the feelings of those events caused most men rated the emotions they provoked as either neutral or positive.

Now there is a whole book to write on the reasons for that difference! It would be interesting to study the question within same-sex sexual harassment of men. Would those events provoke a more negative reaction? Or would it matter if the harassment is carried out by a boss?

The most important finding of Berdahl's three studies is that the women with masculine characteristics experience more sexual harassment than other types of women, even if they also score high on the female characteristics. This suggests that sexual harassment is at least partly not a courting game or a form of flirting gone bad but an actual strategy to punish women who are seen as violating traditional gender roles.

The three studies are not without problems. For example, the sample sizes are fairly small and the first two studies use university undergraduates as the study populations. Given the geographical catchment area of the university in which the studies were carried out the vast majority of the study subjects gave their ethnicity as Asian. It would be interesting to replicate the study in other types of populations.

Berdahl is not the first researcher to study the reasons for sexual harassment. At the beginning of her article she quotes an earlier study by Maass and colleagues. That study can be used as a shorthand description of the topic of sexual harassment that Berdahl studies. She writes:

Using a computer paradigm,Maass and colleagues had men receive an electronic communication from a purported interaction partner (Dall’Ara&Maass,1999;Maassetal.,2003). Half of the men received a message from a woman who said she was studying economics,intended to become a bank manager,thought women were as capable as men,and participated in a union that defended women’s rights. The other half of the men received a message from a woman who said she was studying education,intended to become an elementary school teacher to allow time for family and children,and chose not to become a lawyer because the job is more appropriate for men and she is afraid to compete with men.

Men had the option of sending a variety of images to their interaction partner in reply and were more likely to send offensive pornography to the woman who expressed nontraditional beliefs and career ambitions than to the woman who expressed traditional ones.

The rationale provided by Maass et al.(2003)for why men gender harass nontraditional women is that men are motivated to derogate women when they experience a threat to their male identity.Women threaten male identity when they blur distinctions between men and women and thereby challenge the legitimacy of these distinctions and the status they confer men.

Most men don't engage in acts of sexual harassment, of course, and those who do may have multiple motivations. But the idea of harassment as a form of punishment for what is viewed as deviant gender behavior is useful.