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She’s the fresh-faced secretary, preyed on by the high-powered partner. She’s the college intern, who becomes the butt of her boss’s dirty jokes. She’s the junior associate, propositioned by her manager. When it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, popular culture has a favorite image: The powerful man leching on his female underling.
But according to a new study, female supervisors are actually sexually harassed more than female subordinates. The researchers at the University of Maine and the University of Minnesota analyzed the Youth Development Study, which surveyed 1,010 individuals at regular intervals, starting when they were high school freshmen in St. Paul, Minn., in 1988. They looked at the responses from when these individuals were 29 and 30, and then interviewed 33 of them in depth.
Harassing The Boss
Women who were supervisors experienced sexually harassing behaviors 138 percent more than women who weren’t, according to their analysis, and experienced it 73 percent more frequently.
Working in largely male environments increases the likelihood of harassment. Female supervisors who worked in largely male environments, like police work or construction, were also significantly more likely to be harassed than those who worked in jobs with more women, like nursing or beauty salons (58 percent and 42 percent, respectively).
Women who step out of traditional feminine roles are most likely to be targets.“The popular culture image of sexual harassment is one of a male boss hitting on a female subordinate who he feels some sexual attraction to,” says one of the study’s researchers, sociologist Amy Blackstone of the University of Maine. If that were true, one would expect women who are young, attractive and vulnerable to be more at risk. The Youth Development Study does not measure hotness, but it does ask respondents to score their “femininity” on a 1-to-5 scale.
The less feminine women, it turns out, were sexually harassed more, in the same way men are more likely to be sexually harassed when they’re perceived as less masculine.
It may be a way of keeping powerful women “in their place.” The researchers theorize that sexually touching the woman, remarking on her body shape, probing her about her sexual proclivities, or tossing a copy of Playboy on her desk may be attempts to undermine her: sending the message that she’s not valued as an equal, but as a body. The harassment also often is done for the amusement of other men, studies suggest.
“What better way to keep someone in their place than to humiliate them using sexual behaviors?” says Blackstone, who authored the study along with two sociologists at the University of Minnesota, professor Chris Uggen and Ph.D. candidate Heather McLaughlin.
Easier To Harass Women In Largely Male Workplaces
Sexual harassment may occur more often in predominantly male workplaces because the woman is less likely to report it, Blackstone suspects. In interviews, many women in this position reported feeling isolated, with few people to talk to, and more pressure to prove that they could do the job.
One woman they interviewed was the first woman in upper management at her manufacturing firm. She described being groped throughout a company dinner by the powerful client next to her. He put his arm around her, called her beautiful, touched her leg under the table and jokingly tried to undo her bra. For hours, nobody said anything, the study reports. When a male co-worker finally intervened, he apparently encouraged her to leave, but stayed behind himself to drink at the bar with the other guys.
When asked why she thought she was targeted, the woman replied: “I was the only girl there.”
Sexual harassment is also often done for the benefit of other men, according to past research. The researchers conducted one interview with a female employee at a home supply and building store, who said that her male co-workers would dump water on her when she was wearing a white T-shirt, so that her breasts would show through. Those kinds of pranks only seemed to happen, she said, when there were three or more men present.
The stereotype of the buxom secretary being harassed doesn’t come from nothing, however. The first sexual harassment lawsuits in the ’70s and ’80s were all brought by women against their male bosses. There was Mechelle Vinson, a bank teller who claimed that the vice president of the bank repeatedly coerced her into sex and demanded sexual favors. AndSandra Bundy, who endured constant, crude sexual propositions from her two supervisors. And most famously Anita Hill, who alleged that soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas made sexually inappropriate remarks to her when she worked under him.
But in the ’70s and ’80s, female supervisors may not have been sexually harassed so much simply because there weren’t a lot of female supervisors. “Harassing women in the ’70s and ’80s in the workplace was a way of keeping them in their place as well,” says Blackstone — sending the message that they’re not welcome in the workplace at all.
Today, women are largely accepted in the workplace, just not always in all industries, and in all positions of power. So as women creep up the ladder, sexual harassment may be one way to try to knock them back down, the study claims, or at least grease the rungs so they’re not so easy to climb.
“How [sexual harassment] is laughed at in TV shows and movies as something that is really comical, it isn’t representing what’s happening in most women’s lives,” says McLaughlin. “It’s about putting women in their place in the workplace and stripping them of any power that they have.”
For decades, feminist advocates have argued that sexual harassment is driven less by sex, and more by power. Unwanted touching and crude jokes aren’t signs of a crush, they argued, but a way to crush a woman’s self-esteem. This study is one of the few examples of hard data that may back up this idea. “Sexual harassment is not about trying to find a romantic sexual partner,” McLaughlin says about their findings. “It’s about so much more than this.”