Women who do not fit typical “feminine” stereotypes are less likely to be taken seriously if they claim they were sexually harassed, according to new research.
A study from the University of Washington, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 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 fit the stereotype of a “typical” woman.
More than 4,000 participants were involved in the study, where researchers conducted a series of 11 multi-method experiments, designed to see the effect of a victim’s fit to the concept of a “typical woman” had on people’s view of sexual harassment.
Co-author of the study Cheryl Kaiser, from the University of Washington, said the researchers wanted to understand what happens when a victim of sexual harassment does not look or act like a stereotypical member of a gender-based group.
The findings demonstrated that non-stereotypical women who are sexually harassed may be vulnerable to unjust and discriminatory treatment when they seek legal recourse.
“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 victimization and harm within the legal system,” Kaiser said.
“If women’s nonconformity to feminine stereotypes biases perceptions of their credibility and harm caused by harassment, as our results suggest, it could prevent non-stereotypical women who are sexually harassed from receiving the civil rights protections afforded to them by law,” said co-author Bryn Bandt-Law, a researcher from the University of Washington.
The study also found that in situations that may be considered “ambiguous”, for example, a boss inquiring about a woman’s dating life, participants were less likely to see it as sexual harassment when the target was non-stereotypical.
“We found that participants were less likely to label these ambiguous scenarios as sexual harassment when the targets were non-stereotypical women compared with stereotypical women, despite the fact that both stereotypical and non-stereotypical targets experienced the same incident,” said Jin Goh, another co-author of the study.