Whether women’s sexual harassment claims are believed depends a lot on who the victims are

January 26, 2021

Sexual harassment claims made by "prototypical" women are more likely to be believed. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

The rise of the #MeToo movement within the past few years shined a spotlight on the widespread issue of sexual harassment, which many women face in some capacity throughout their lives. But a study from the University of Washington highlights how some women’s claims aren’t always taken as seriously. 

New research published Jan. 14 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that more “prototypical” women — those who are young, white and conventionally attractive — are far more likely to be believed when they make an accusation of sexual harassment than those who do not fit the conventional feminine mold.

The study was inspired by the #MeToo movement and, in particular, by how the media covered it, according to Bryn Bandt-Law, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Washington and one of the study’s lead authors.

“Media coverage of the mainstream #MeToo movement often amplified the voices of women who are feminine and attractive, such as Hollywood actresses, and left out the stories of many other women,” Bandt-Law said. “We wanted to explore why some women who are sexually harassed [were] neglected more than others.”

The research involved more than 4,000 participants who underwent various experiments to address the questions of who they thought is more likely to be sexually harassed, how claims of harassment are perceived and what exactly constitutes harassment.

Participants were presented with different scenarios of potential sexual harassment, such as varying levels of workplace harassment or coercion. Some participants were asked to determine if these different scenarios qualified as sexual harassment in their mind, or how severely they thought the victim was harmed by the scenario. Others were presented with a digital headshot that was manipulated to look more typically feminine or masculine and asked to choose which one best fit the person described in their scenario.

Other participants were asked to simply draw a woman who had been harassed or not harassed, depending on the prompt, an experiment aimed at exposing baseline conceptions and biases about femininity.

Overall, the study found that the participants held a narrow, stereotypical view of what types of women would be victims of sexual harassment. The underlying issue is that women who fall outside gender prototypes may not be believed or have their harassment considered harmful — which can carry legal implications for harassment cases, Bandt-Law noted.

“A finding that’s especially jarring is that a women’s non-prototypicality can bias people’s perception about how harmed people think she is by sexual harassment,” Bandt-Law said. “Perceived psychological harm is a very important legal factor.”

As to what’s driving these beliefs regarding who and who is not harmed by sexual harassment, Bandt-Law said that media representation is a key factor.

“If we look at how the media discusses sexual harassment and #MeToo, the representations kind of map on to these gender stereotypes of women in terms of who is being represented as a victim of sexual harassment,” Bandt-Law said. “Another example would be if, right now, we Googled ‘sexual harassment victim,’ pictures of white, feminine, young, attractive women would be most of the first 200 images. So we’re also seeing that in addition to our media representation, that our algorithms are also guiding these stereotypical representations.”

The fact that media representation, or lack thereof, may be such a huge influence on beliefs regarding women could lead to the right kind of intervention to address these concerns. Bandt-Law said that while there is no data yet to speak on what methods work as interventions, the research team is looking to explore if broader, more accurate representations of women and sexual harassment in media could mitigate some of the bias they saw in the study.

Research into this issue is ongoing, and further studies are investigating gender identity, such as whether trans women are considered less prototypical than cis women, Bandt-Law said. As this study was focused on variation in gender prototypicality within white women specifically, additional research will also examine that kind of variation between different racial demographics.

“For example, we know from previous research that people perceive Black women as being less gender stereotypical than white women,” Bandt-Law said. “We’re examining whether or not we see these same patterns of neglect when Black women are sexually harassed, compared to white women.”

The article, “Narrow Prototypes and Neglected Victims: Understanding Perceptions of Sexual Harassment,” was published Jan. 14 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It was authored by Jin Goh of Colby College, Bryn Bandt-Law and Cheryl Kaiser of the University of Washington, and Nathan Cheek and Stacey Sinclair of Princeton University.

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