Friday, February 20, 2015

How Selective Mistreatment is Stalling the Revolution: Sexual Harassment at Work

“Are we in the best of times or worst of times for gender equality?” asked Jennifer Berdahl, Professor of Leadership Studies: Gender and Diversity at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, at this week’s WAPPP seminar. Titled “From Sexual Harassment to Selective Mistreatment: The Regulation of Gender at Work,” Professor Berdahl’s presentation highlighted that while women have come far in higher education and the workforce since the 1970s, progress has stalled in the last two decades.

Professor Berdahl’s research examines how social treatment in the workplace may play into these outcomes, focusing on sexual harassment. She categorized sexual harassment into three categories: gender harassment, which is the most common, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion, i.e. quid pro quo, which is far less common. Though sexual harassment is largely understood to be men exercising organizational and economic power to coerce women into sexual behavior, we know that women can harass men, too. Berdahl and her colleagues were interested in examining the form that male harassment takes and whether it can be considered sexual harassment, given that the gender power differentials aren’t the same.

To do this, Berdahl et al. conducted a study of university students, asking them about experiences typically deemed to be sexual harassment to determine if they felt threatened by them. The study found that 14% of men had been harassed and that they were significantly less likely to be threatened by this behavior from women. The most harmful harassment they experienced concerned being labeled as “not man enough” from both men and women, which Berdahl labeled as gender harassment.
Anita Hill testifying before the U.S. Senate, 1991.

In another study of university men, Berdahl et al. found that sexual harassment was more common towards women who embodied more masculine traits, despite these women being no more likely to identify behaviors as offensive and harassing. This finding is more consistent with the idea that the harassment stems from a gender role violation and not from sexual interest.

Using a sample of faculty and staff at a large university, Berdahl found that general mistreatment of all employees was much more common in male-dominated settings, and women without children were the most commonly mistreated. Gender atypical employees were targeted for mistreatment, whether they were considered to violate gender norms occupationally, in their behavioral roles, or via their family roles.

Berdahl questioned the extent to which this mistreatment affected advancement. Since mistreatment is typically a peer dynamic based on social acceptance, and advancement is based on being noticed and deemed worthy of respect, it’s possible that those who violate social norms might still get ahead. To examine this, Berdahl et al. paired personality measures and mistreatment measures with advancement measures out of their sample of faculty and staff. Women who were colder and more assertive were the most mistreated but also received more raises than women with more typically feminine qualities. This might imply that women’s advancement itself is one of the sources of women’s mistreatment, as a woman might be disliked among peers but promoted by superiors.

In short, Berdahl explained that gender is actively regulated through social mistreatment at work, from gender and sexual harassment to mistreatment at large. This discourages both women and men from entering and remaining in non-traditional roles at work and home and allows for gender segregation and inequality to continue. Going forward, Berdahl hopes to conduct more research on the intersection of gender and race, examine the importance of culture and leadership and separate out types of mistreatment to better understand them.

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