Sexual harassment victims ‘less likely to be believed if they are seen as less feminine’

‘Non-stereotypical women who are sexually harassed may be vulnerable to unjust and discriminatory treatment when they seek legal recourse,’ says report author

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Thursday 14 January 2021 19:49 GMT
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<p>Researchers note sexual harassment is a prevalent issue, with a range of harmful repercussions, such as worse performance at school or work, mental heath issues and financial instability</p>

Researchers note sexual harassment is a prevalent issue, with a range of harmful repercussions, such as worse performance at school or work, mental heath issues and financial instability

Women that suffer sexual harassment who are deemed to be less stereotypically feminine are less likely to have their allegations believed, a new study has found.

The report, published by the American Psychological Association, discovered sexual harassment is seen to be less psychologically damaging when the victim is less typically attractive and did not tally with female stereotypes.

Researchers, whose findings were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, note sexual harassment is a prevalent issue, with a range of harmful repercussions, such as worse performance at school or work, mental heath issues and financial instability.

Cheryl Kaiser, one of the study’s authors, said: “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 victimisation and harm within the legal system.

“Our research found that a claim was deemed less credible and sexual harassment was perceived to be less psychologically harmful when it targeted a victim who was less attractive or did not act according to the stereotype of a typical woman.”

Researchers carried out a series of 11 experiments, which drew on more than 4,000 participants, to look at the impact preconceived notions of feminity have on sexual harassment.

Respondents deemed sexual harassment victims as being more stereotypical than those who did not suffer such misconduct in five of the experiments.

Meanwhile, other experiments discovered sexual harassment claims were seen as less credible and the torment less likely to be deemed as psychologically harmful when the victim was less stereotypically feminine - despite the allegations being identical.

Bryn Bandt-Law, one of the report’s authors, said: “Perceiving sexual harassment involves noticing a behaviour that might qualify as harassment and linking that behaviour to gender-based group membership. We wanted to understand what happens when the victim does not look or act like a stereotypical member of that gender-based group.

“Our findings demonstrate that non-stereotypical women who are sexually harassed may be vulnerable to unjust and discriminatory treatment when they seek legal recourse”.

Jin Goh, another of the report’s authors, noted participants were less likely to brand “ambiguous scenarios” as sexual harassment when the targets were “non-stereotypical women”.

It comes after The Independent last week reported a quarter of UK women suffering sexual harassment while working from home say the misconduct was exacerbated after the government announced a lockdown in March and more time was spent online working remotely.

Online sexual harassment has surged as the coronavirus crisis forced people to work from home – with perpetrators finding new ways to abuse their victims via technology.

Exclusive polling carried out for The Independent by Rights of Women, the leading sexual harassment advice line, found almost half of women being subjected to workplace sexual harassment now say it is taking place remotely, while more than four in ten victims say they experienced either some or all of the misconduct online.

One woman, who remained anonymous, said: “The director of the company uses Zoom to take screenshots of myself and other women which he shares with colleagues making derogatory statements and implying the photos look like we’re doing sexual acts.”

A study from last summer found employers are urging women to dress “sexier” and wear make-up during video calls in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown.

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