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Gender Stereotyping and Harassment for Women in the Workplace

Gender Stereotyping and Harassment for Women in the Workplace

In psychological science, studies consistently find that women who work in male dominated contexts report more frequent sexual harassment, including gender harassment (see Willness, Steel, & Lee, 2007 for a meta-analysis). More recently, research suggested that women with “masculine personality characteristics” also ex- perienced greater levels of sexual harassment (Berdahl, 2007a). Our research expands this literature by empirically identifying several counterstereotypic attributes (physical, behavioral, and contextual) that—additively and multiplicatively—affect harass- ment risk. Specifically, we examined how deviations from stereo- typically “female” attributes—masculine appearance, masculine- typed behaviors (aggression and self-reliance), and work in a masculine context—and their potential interactions related to women’s experiences of two subtypes of gender harassment: sexist remarks and gender policing. Using these attributes, we explored competing theories regarding whether counterstereotypic charac- teristics increased or decreased women’s exposure to gender ha- rassment. In the following sections, we provide a brief overview of legal and psychological perspectives on gender harassment. In addition, we detail the rationale behind exploring competing par- adigms.

Psychological Perspectives on Gender Harassment

Psychological research has found gender harassment to be the most common type of sexual harassment that women experience (Langhout et al., 2005; Leskinen, Cortina, & Kabat, 2011; Sch- neider, Swan & Fitzgerald, 1997). Gender harassment can include sexist remarks, comments about workplaces being a “man’s space,” pejorative terms of address, and crude behavior (e.g., displaying or distributing pornography). These actions are gener- ally hostile and include behaviors that insult and reject women, without any intent of initiating a sexual relationship or sexual exploitation. Recently, researchers mapped the dimensions of gen- der harassment and found five underlying types of offending behaviors: sexist remarks, gender policing, crude behavior, infan- tilization, and policing of work/family boundaries (Leskinen & Cortina, 2014). Consistent with the above research, the present study considered gender harassment a psychological construct (as opposed to a strictly legal process). For the sake of parsimony, our study focused on the two subtypes of gender harassment most relevant to gender stereotyping: sexist remarks and gender polic- ing (detailed below).

In addition to gender harassment, psychological research gen- erally has recognized two other subtypes of sexual harassment: unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion (see Fitzgerald, Gelfand, & Drasgow, 1995; Gelfand, Fitzgerald, & Drasgow, 1995). Unwanted sexual attention refers to verbal and nonverbal “expressions of romantic or sexual interest that are unwelcome, unreciprocated, and offensive to the recipient (e.g., unwanted touching, pressure for dates or sexual behavior)” (Leskinen et al., 2011, p. 26). Sexual coercion—which roughly parallels the legal concept of “quid pro quo” harassment—involves actions that make the victim’s job or work conditions contingent on sexual cooper- ation (e.g., making a pay raise dependent on sex). Both unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion are strikingly different from gender harassment, which lacks any hint of sexual interest.

Legal Perspectives on Gender Harassment

While sexual harassment has been recognized as an illegal form of sex discrimination for nearly 40 years (beginning with Barnes v. Costle, 1977), early cases were limited to “quid pro quo” situa- tions, in which male bosses used job-related bribes and threats to pressure female subordinates to comply with sexual demands. However, in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that even if sexual harassment does not threaten the victim’s job or benefits, it still constitutes actionable harassment if it creates a “hostile work environment.” This deci- sion opened up the possibility that nonsexualized, gender-based harassment could violate Title VII, under certain circumstances. In Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc. (1993), the Supreme Court reaf- firmed the standard set in Meritor, adding that an “objectively hostile or abusive work environment” is present when “a reason- able person would find [it] hostile or abusive,” and the victim subjectively perceives it that way. Of note, the female plaintiff in Harris alleged numerous instances of gender harassment, includ- ing remarks such as “You’re a woman, what do you know” and “You’re a dumb ass woman.”

In 1998, the Supreme Court provided further guidance about what constitutes sexual harassment in Oncale v. Sundowner Off- shore Services, Inc. (1998):

. . . harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire to support an inference of discrimination on the basis of sex. A Trier of fact might reasonably find such discrimination, for example, if a female victim is harassed in such sex-specific and derogatory terms . . . as to make it clear that the harasser is motivated by general hostility to the presence of women in the workplace (p. 80).

In sum, United States law views gender harassment as a variety of “hostile work environment” harassment. This conduct becomes legally actionable, potentially contravening Title VII, when it meets the following criteria: (a) occurs “because of” the victim’s sex, with “sex” meaning femaleness1 rather than sexuality; (b) is so “severe or pervasive” that it adversely changes conditions of employment; and (c) produces a work environment that a “reason- able” person would find, and that the victim herself finds, hostile or abusive (Leskinen et al., 2011). Nevertheless, a woman can feel gender harassed in a psychological sense, even when no statutory violation has taken place (e.g., Fitzgerald, Swan, & Magley, 1997).

Defining (and Defying) Gender Stereotypes

Gender Stereotypicality of the Person

The terms masculinity and femininity are used frequently in social science research and everyday conversation; however, little agreement over their conceptual definitions exists. In 1973, Con- stantinople called them some of the “muddiest concepts” in psy-

1 We recognize that anyone can be targeted with gender harassment (regardless of sex), and both men and women can make “hostile environ- ment” claims. However, our study focused exclusively on women’s expe- riences, as research has suggested that men’s experiences of sex-based harassment are qualitatively different from women’s (e.g., Berdahl, Magley & Waldo, 1996; Stockdale, 2005). See the Discussion section for gender-specific implications and suggestions for future research.

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