According to a new study, gender prototypes influence the way people perceive and react to sexual harassment toward women. The study found that sexual harassment claims are perceived as less credible and the acts as less harmful when the victims are non-prototypical women compared to women with more feminine features. The findings were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Recent movements like the #MeToo campaign have brought national attention to the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment. While the initiative certainly brought awareness to the cause, some have criticized the movement for focusing on victims who fit within stereotypical female norms, while ignoring those who do not.
Past studies suggest that women with less feminine physical characteristics and attributes are often ignored and discredited by society. Researcher Jin X. Goh and his colleagues stress that accurately recognizing sexual harassment and identifying these acts as harmful is essential to resolving allegations and attending to the civil rights of victims. A series of 11 studies led by Goh aimed to explore whether sexual harassment against non-prototypical women would be judged as less credible and less harmful than sexual harassment against prototypical women.
First, a series of five experiments assessed participants’ mental representations of female victims of sexual harassment. A first study had participants either read about a woman who had been groped by her boss (sexual harassment condition) or who had been bumped into by her boss (control condition). After reading the text, the subjects were asked to draw their mental representation of the female character. The researchers found that drawings of the woman who had been sexually harassed were more prototypically feminine than drawings of the nonharassed woman.
Four further experiments replicated this effect. This time, from a series of photos, subjects consistently chose women who were more stereotypically female to represent the sexual harassment victim. “Five experiments provided converging evidence that people mentally represent sexual harassment targets as prototypical women,” the researchers highlight. “This was consistent across a variety of manifestations of sexual harassment, including unwanted sexual attention, advances, and gender harassment.”
Next, the researchers found evidence to suggest that these mental representations influence the way people perceive incidents that may or may not constitute sexual harassment. In four separate studies, subjects read about a woman who experienced an ambiguous incident at work that could potentially be seen as sexual harassment (e.g., a superior complimenting a woman’s appearance and asking her if she is still with her boyfriend). The researchers found that even when the scenarios were identical, participants were more likely to construe an incident as sexual harassment when the target was depicted with prototypically female attributes.
“We theorize that perceiving a potentially harassing behavior as sexual harassment requires connecting the behavior to the prototypical group representation of women (Major et al., 2002),” Goh and colleagues discuss. “As such, when targets of harassment deviate from the image of prototypical women, people may have greater difficulty associating the targets with harassment and are therefore less likely to perceive that nonprototypical targets have experienced harassment.”
These findings are disconcerting, the researchers say, because determining that sexual harassment has occurred is a crucial first step in reporting the harassment, holding the perpetrator accountable, and supporting the victim.
In two final experiments, the researchers found that participants judged the sexual harassment claims of non-prototypical women as less credible and their harassment experiences as less harmful compared to those of prototypical women. In one of the studies, participants even suggested more lax recommendations for how the perpetrator should be punished when the target was a nonstereotypical woman.
The researchers point to the impact of this obstacle faced by nonstereotypical women. “Importantly, our results also suggest that even when nonprototypical women overcome this barrier, are perceived as credible, and reach an investigative body or jury, nonprototypicality can then bias perceptions of the harm victims have endured.” Goh and his colleagues express that this is particularly worrying given that studies suggest that women with less prototypical features are more likely to be victims of sexual harassment.
They say that furthering the understanding of these biases will be a crucial step in helping all female victims of sexual harassment receive the civil rights protections and appropriate resolutions they deserve.
The study, “Narrow Prototypes and Neglected Victims: Understanding Perceptions of Sexual Harassment”, was authored by Jin X. Goh, Bryn Bandt-Law, Nathan N. Cheek, Stacey Sinclair, and Cheryl R. Kaiser.