Most women are not confrontational when faced with sex harassment, Yale study shows

May 28, 2001

New Haven, Conn. - Women like to believe they would report or confront someone who was sexually harassing them, but when faced with an actual situation, out of fear they rarely voice objections, according to a study by a Yale University researcher.

The findings published in the spring issue of the Journal of Social Issues were based on the reactions of 50 women, 18-to-39-years-old, who, during the course of what they believed was a real job interview, were asked three sexually harassing questions: "Do you have a boyfriend?" "Do people find you desirable?" and "Do you think it is important for women to wear bras to work?"

Each of the women answered all of the questions. It was only following the interview that 36 percent politely asked why the interviewer had posed the offensive questions.

"That a majority of the interviewees ignored the harassing content is not particularly surprising," said Marianne LaFrance, professor of psychology and women's and gender studies in the Department of Psychology at Yale. "Many researchers note that the most common initial response is to ignore the harassment."

LaFrance is co-author of the study with Julie Woodzicka of Washington and Lee University.

The researchers began with the premise that sexual harassment studies that use hypothetical situations and retrospective surveys may overestimate the degree to which victims actually confront their harassers.

"The result is that immediate emotional reactions are little understood and victims are often taken to task for nonconfrontational behavior," they said. One example, they said, is Anita Hill, then professor of law at the University of Oklahoma who claimed to have been sexually harassed by then-U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas. Many questioned her credibility because she did not file a formal complaint against Thomas at the time.

However, what the researchers found is that women who are actually harassed react very differently than those who only imagine their responses. For example, imagined victims anticipate feeling angry, but actual targets report being afraid.

"Existing research shows that people in general, both men and women, are notoriously bad at predicting what they would do and how they would feel," LaFrance said. "Most people fail to recognize the power of the situation - in this case provocative questions coming up in a job interview, out of nowhere, when it's not absolutely clear cut what is meant. Women imagine they would be confrontational, but what we find is they don't report, don't confront, and don't leave."

The researchers said multiple modes of investigating feelings and responses to sexual harassment are needed to paint a more realistic picture of how most women actually respond to harassment. Such understanding may help alleviate some of the stigma associated with not confronting harassment.

"Our findings also explain why most women do not confront," they said. "The reason has little to do with welcoming the harassment or complacency. Rather, fear may impede more assertive responses."

Yale University

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