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Behind harassment

August 20, 2009


A businesswoman walks up an escalator.

The study found that nearly 50 percent of female supervisors reported sexual harassment in the workplace, while only one-third of women who do not supervise others reported such harassment. While supervisory status increased the likelihood of harassment among women, it did not significantly impact the likelihood for men.

Female supervisors more likely to report being sexually harassed than non-supervisors

By Rick Moore

Sociology researchers from the University of Minnesota have found further evidence that sexual harassment in the workplace might be more about gender and power than sexual desire.

Women who hold supervisory positions are more likely to be sexually harassed at work than non-supervisors, according to the first-ever, large-scale longitudinal study to examine workplace power, gender, and sexual harassment.

The study reveals that nearly 50 percent of female supervisors reported sexual harassment in the workplace, while only one-third of women who do not supervise others reported such harassment. While supervisory status increased the likelihood of harassment among women, it did not significantly impact the likelihood for men.

"Male coworkers, clients, and supervisors seem to be using harassment as an equalizer against women in power," says Heather McLaughlin, a sociologist at the U of M and the study's lead author. As the first large-scale longitudinal examination of sexual harassment, the study provides the strongest evidence to date linking sexual harassment to supervisory status and gender.

McLaughlin says the findings are something of a paradox. "Traditionally, you think of sexual harassment as the male boss and the female secretary," she says. That's how individuals who started talking about harassment in the late [1970s] thought about it, because that was largely the case for women in the workforce at that time.

"But since then, the composition of the workforce has changed and women are moving more into [these] leadership positions. We're finding that there's some backlash against that, and female supervisors who have workplace power are more likely to be harassed."

McLaughlin and her co-authors based the study on 2003 and 2004 data from Jeylan Mortimer's Youth Development Study (YDS), which began in 1988 with a sample of 1,010 ninth graders in the St. Paul public school district. The study has continued near annually with the same sample, and respondents were approximately 30 years old during the 2003 and 2004 waves. The analysis was supplemented with in-depth interviews with a subset of the YDS survey respondents.

"This study provides the strongest evidence to date supporting the theory that sexual harassment is less about sexual desire than about control and domination," says Heather McLaughlin, a sociologist at the U of M and the study's primary investigator. "Male coworkers, clients, and supervisors seem to be using harassment as an equalizer against women in power."


In the same study, the sociologists also found that, in addition to workplace power, gender expression was a strong predictor of workplace harassment. Men who reported higher levels of femininity—rating themselves as anywhere from "somewhat feminine" to "very feminine"—were more likely to have experienced sexually harassing behaviors (44 percent) than less feminine men-those who rated themselves as "not at all feminine" (31 percent). And more feminine men were at a greater risk of experiencing more severe or multiple forms of sexual harassment.

"For men, self-reported femininity really makes a difference," McLaughlin says. "Men who aren't really conforming to what coworkers think real men should act like are more likely to experience this sort of treatment (harassment)."

In a separate analysis examining perceived and self-reported sexual orientation, study respondents who reported being labeled as non-heterosexual by others or who self-identified as non-heterosexual (gay, lesbian, bisexual, unsure, other) were nearly twice as likely to experience harassment.

Researchers also found that those who reported harassment in the first year (2003) were 6.5 times more likely to experience harassment in the following year. The most common scenario reported by survey respondents involved male harassers and female targets, while males harassing other males was the second most frequent situation.

McLaughlin says that the magnitude of survey participants reporting sexual harassment suggests that employers should be paying attention. Over the years, courts have found that it's not only the harasser who is responsible for the offending act, but also the organization.

"As a response, organizations are writing up these [sexual harassment] policies, which is good, but it's not really given the proper attention that it deserves," she says. "The organizations have a certain responsibility to take these issues seriously and improve workplace culture."

McLaughlin co-authored the study with sociologists Christopher Uggen, chair of the University of Minnesota's sociology department and a distinguished McKnight professor of sociology, and Amy Blackstone, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maine. The multi-method research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Mental Health and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

 

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