Gender Stereotypes Undermine Sexual Harassment Investigations, Study Says

Women who do not conform to societal stereotypes of femininity may experience bias when seeking legal protections against sexual harassment, according to a study published Jan. 14 in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In recognizing the barriers to legal rights, it’s crucial to understand misperceptions about victims of sexual harassment, according to the study.

Researchers completed a series of 11 multi-method experiments, which included more than 4,000 total participants, to investigate the effect a victim’s fit to the stereotype of a typical woman had on participants’ view of sexual harassment. However, the study did not address variations among women including race, gender identity and sexual orientation, researchers noted.

In some of the experiments, participants read scenarios in which women did or did not experience sexual harassment. Next, by selecting from a series of photos or drawing what they thought the women might look like, participants demonstrated the extent to which the women fit with the idealized image of women, researchers said. In other experiments, participants were shown ambiguous sexual harassment scenarios, paired with descriptions or photos of women who were either stereotypical or not. They then rated the likelihood that the incident was sexual harassment.

The perception that sexual harassment is driven by sexual interest in the victim may contribute to “dismissive reactions to nonprototypical sexual harassment victims,” researchers found. However, the experiments also indicated that future research should look at the extent to which beliefs about sexual harassment contribute to perceptions of who is victimized, researchers noted. When victims deviate from the prototypical image of women, sexual harassment may go unrecognized, may not be considered harmful and women may not be believed, according to the study.

As nonprototypical women are disproportionately targeted by sexual harassment, it’s “concerning” their experiences are more likely to be discredited and minimized, the study found. “When the perception of sexual harassment relies on victims’ resemblance to narrow prototypes of women, many women will experience difficulty attaining civil rights protections offered under the law,” researchers concluded.

Although sexual harassment causes “considerable psychological, physical, and economic harm to its targets,” bias toward victims when seeking protections is a persistent obstacle, according to University of Washington researchers.

“Sexual harassment is pervasive and causes significant harm, yet far too many women cannot access fairness, justice and legal protection, leaving them susceptible to further victimization and harm within the legal system,” Professor Cheryl Kaiser and a co-author of the study said in a statement. Based on the research, a claim of sexual harassment was considered less credible and less psychologically harmful when the victim “did not act according to the stereotype of a typical woman,” Kaiser said.

In the workplace, the HR department may be the first line of defense for employees who report incidents of sexual harassment. The responsibility lies within the department to ensure harassment does not go unanswered, or it could potentially communicate tolerance, according to experts. For example, a December 2020 lawsuit filed by a former Johnson & Johnson executive alleged that HR “failed to take remedial action to protect the plaintiff.” The plaintiff claimed she was harassed and discriminated against because of her gender and sexual orientation. In January 2020, a former Wayfair worker filed suit against the company claiming the company’s HR department ignored her sexual harassment complaints.

In FY 2018, more than 7,500 sexual harassment claims were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a 14% increase from the prior year, according to a February 2020 report by the National Conference of State Legislature. To prevent workplace sexual harassment, many states are seeking to go beyond federal regulations, some including “sex” in its discrimination laws as a protected class, the organization found.

A standardized reporting procedure for sexual harassment claims can better facilitate action by HR and support active listening and accuracy, according to experts.

If your organization if looking for an independent source to handle your sexual harassment or any type of workplace harassment investigation, our team of dedicated professionals is here to help. Feel free to reach out to us at: for more information.

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