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What Do Psychologists Say About Sexual Harassment?

Psychological research details the causes and effects of sexual harassment.

Shawn Meghan Burn
Source: Shawn Meghan Burn

The sexual harassment shenanigans of Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes at Fox News remind us that sexual harassment remains a workplace problem. In the larger scheme of gendered violence, perhaps sexual harassment does not seem like a big deal. But it is.

For one, it is an affront to our American values of equality in the workplace. Americans should be uncomfortable with the fact that this is an additional workplace stressor experienced disproportionately by women and that it represents a form of workplace gender inequality.

But we should also care because of the human and organizational costs of sexual harassment. Research tells us that victims perceive sexual harassment as annoying, offensive, upsetting, embarrassing, stressful, and frightening. Sexual harassment often results in emotional and physical stress and stress-related mental and physical illnesses). Research in the United States links sexual harassment to increased absenteeism, job turnover, transfer requests, and decreases in work motivation and productivity.

Sexual harassers may be supervisors, peers, customers, or clients. Although men sometimes experience sexual harassment (mostly young men, gay men, members of ethnic or racial minorities, and men working in female-dominated work groups), the vast majority of those who experience it are women. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the United States estimates that between 25 and 50 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. When women are minorities, either statistically because there are few of them or because they are ethnic minorities, they are often at increased risk for sexual harassment.

Psychologist Louise Fitzgerald and her colleagues identified three behavioral dimensions of sexual harassment. Gender harassment refers to verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey insulting, hostile, and degrading attitudes toward women such as questioning women’s competence for a particular job, displaying pornography, calling women “bitches,” and making obscene gestures. Unwanted sexual attention includes suggestive comments about a woman’s body as well as unsolicited and unreciprocated sexual advances. Most of the reported harassment at Fox falls into this category. Last, sexual coercion refers to requiring sex as a condition of employment or job rewards. Legally, it is often called quid pro quo sexual harassment. Many of the women harassed by O’Reilly and Ailes said that they experienced job-related repercussions for rebuffing the men’s sexual advances, or expected to if they spoke up. For the sake of their careers, most stayed silent.

From a feminist psychological perspective, sexual harassment arises from traditional expectations and relationships between the genders that overflow into the workplace although they are irrelevant or inappropriate. It is also conceptualized as being about power. Because it intimidates and discourages women in the workplace, it reinforces workplace gender hierarchies that privilege men. Some men abuse their organizational power to sexually coerce or intimidate women and to allow sexual harassment to occur unabated. Indeed, organizational tolerance—the degree to which an organization is perceived by employees to be insensitive or tolerant of sexual harassment—affects its frequency and severity. In some organizations sexual harassment complaints are not taken seriously, supervisors sexually harass, perpetrators are not meaningfully punished, and women who report sexual harassment face more harassment. From this standpoint it is unsurprising sexual harassers Ailes and O’Reilly got away with it for so long. After all, Roger Ailes was CEO of Fox News and O’Reilly the host of a highly rated show bringing in millions of advertising dollars.

Fox ultimately fired Ailes and O’Reilly and maybe fear of similar lawsuits will stimulate organizational reform. Maybe we will see more organizations proactively create anti-harassment cultures accompanied by strong managerial support. Perhaps newer, more egalitarian forms of masculinity will mean that in a few generations women will be less likely to be sexualized in the workplace and men won’t replicate old-fashioned gender ideologies in the workplace. But right now, it is downright sad that many affected women feel they have to put up with sexual harassment in the workplace. We don’t want to hurt our careers or harm relationships. We anticipate retaliation and need our jobs. We know colleagues, supervisors, or CEOs won’t support us and that we will become pariahs in our workplace. Pursuing legal avenues of redress is untenable given the high personal and financial costs.


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