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When Men Face Sexual Harassment

A new study looks at the kind of sexual harassment male workers can experience.

While over half of all women in the workplace report experiencing some form of sexual harassment on the job, the issue of sexual harassment of men is starting to get more media attention.

According to a recent survey, about one-third of all working men reported at least one form of sexual harassment in the previous year. Of the 7,809 sexual harassment charges filed in 2011 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC), 16.1 percent were filed by men. By 2013, this had risen to 17.6 percent.

Despite the serious consequences that can stem from sexual harassment, whether it involves men or women, sexual harassment against men is often not taken that seriously. There has been extensive research looking at how sexual harassment can affect women, both in terms of the emotional consequences and reduced job prospects, but fewer studies have looked at how men are affected.

But what is sexual harassment exactly? Though it can take different forms, it generally falls into three distinct categories:

Sexual coercion involving job-related threats or bribes to force unwilling workers to enter into a sexual relationship with the harasser. One example of this is when an employer threatens to fire an employee if he/she doesn't agree to sex. While often the most damaging, most harassment tends not to be this blatant.

Unwanted sexual attention involving unwelcome sexual advances towards someone else in the workplace that are regarded as unwelcome or offensive. This can include sexual touching and pressuring for a date. Since it can involve threats or bribes, there can be considerable overlap between this category and the first one.

Then there is gender harassment involving hostile behavior aimed at undermining workers simply due to their gender. This can include denigrating comments, off-color jokes that are intended to be offensive, mocking, and even violent threats. Women expressing strong feminist ideals are often targeted this way. While this is the most common form of sexual harassment in the workplace, it is also the least likely to be seen as harassment.

Both women and men have reported experiencing these three forms of sexual harassment in the workplace, with other men being most likely to be the perpetrators. Men belonging to sexual minorities are particularly vulnerable to this kind of treatment, which can also overlap with displays of outright homophobia. As I've already mentioned, women expressing strong feminist beliefs about issues such as birth control, abortion, or anything that can challenge existing gender biases are especially vulnerable to being harassed. But what about men whose behavior challenges the existing gender hierarchy?

Employers and employees often expect men to act as masculine as possible, and anything that deviates from that is more likely to get them harassed. For example, men who take time off to care for their children may experience more gender harassment in the workplace as a result. Since women are expected to do most of the actual childcare, men may find their careers affected if they deviate from traditional gender roles. Also, men who openly support feminist causes or who are seen as "unmasculine" may get harassed as well.

Probably the strongest predictor for sexual harassment in a workplace is whether there is widespread tolerance for this kind of treatment. Companies that have strong anti-harassment policies in place provide the best protection for men and women, who otherwise find they have no choice but to quit their jobs to escape harassment. While there are federal and state protections in place, they often involve pursuing a case through the courts, and many people simply don't have the resources to see this through. For people who can't afford to quit, staying silent may be seen as the only option.

Again, though, most research looking at sexual harassment focuses on women, with relatively few studies dealing with men who are harassed. A new research study published in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity tries to address this gap and examine some of the factors that can increase the chances of men facing harassment on the job. Carried out by Kathryn J. Holland of the University of Michigan and a team of fellow researchers, the study surveyed over 600 men and women recruited online and questioned them about their own experiences with harassment. Along with looking at the different ways that men can be harassed, the research study also explored some of the factors that can increase the likelihood of harassment. And the results might be surprising.

In the study, data was collected using Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform. Of the 655 men and women surveyed, all of whom reported previous experience with harassment, 326 men were used in the study. Of these, the average age was 32, and most worked full-time in a wide range of different jobs. Twenty percent of the men sampled made $25,000 a year or less, and only 11 percent made more than $100,000 a year.

On average, the people in the study reported experiencing at least one form of gender harassment as part of their working lifetime. This included things such as having someone associated with their work (whether supervisor, coworker, or workplace visitor) engaging in one of eight gender harassment activities, such as "Repeatedly told sexual stories or jokes that were offensive to you,” “Referred to people of your gender in insulting or offensive terms," etc. Also, the men in the study reported experiencing at least one form of sexual advance harassment in the previous year, including activities such as "Touched you in a way that made you feel uncomfortable” or “Implied faster promotions or better treatment if you were sexually cooperative,” etc.

As expected, the likelihood of experiencing either gender harassment or sexual advance harassment rose sharply in organizations that were more likely to tolerate that kind of behavior. Men who deviated from "traditional" stereotypes of masculinity, whether by belonging to a sexual minority or being actively involved in feminist causes, were far more likely to experience some form of harassment. These study results also demonstrate that backlash was particularly common against heterosexual men who challenge traditional gender roles.

Not surprisingly, sexual harassment, whether in the form of verbal or physical abuse, had a negative effect on job satisfaction and psychological well-being. Still, being active in feminist causes can also help protect against the negative effects of this kind of harassment, since it can make men feel empowered about their basic rights.

One key finding for this study was to demonstrate how important organizational policies against sexual harassment are for women and for men. People working for organizations that tolerate harassment are most likely to experience these kinds of incidents, and the negative effects that harassment has on employees can't be underestimated. Developing gender-fair policies and training programs to curb sexual harassment needs to focus on all the different ways that harassment can occur, including gender harassment of men and women.

Though this particular study was limited to sexual harassment as it occurs in the United States, it is important to develop a better understanding of the kinds of sexual harassment of men and women found in different cultures. Also, this study provides some insight into the impact of widespread ideas about masculine roles and how they can affect people at work.

As organizations develop better policies to protect employees from different forms of sexual harassment, it will be important to understand these kind of attitudes and what they can mean for how people relate to each other in the workplace.

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