Expert Commentary

Sexual harassment: Who suffers, and how

This roundup compiles scholarship on sexual harassment and assault, with an eye to demographic trends and health effects.

Women's march

A number of high profile cases of sexual harassment and assault have made headlines lately, shining a spotlight on the abuse and sparking national discussion. Of course, the problem is not new. Of the 90,000 allegations of discrimination the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received in 2015, nearly one-third were harassment complaints, the Commission said in a 2016 report.

Most complaints were based on sex (45 percent) or race (34 percent). Moreover, some may experience “intersectional harassment,” which can encompass both race and gender, the report explains, citing “increasing evidence that targets of harassment often experience mistreatment in multiple forms.” Further, minority women are more likely to experience harassment than their white peers, the report says. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence reports similar findings, stating that minorities experience the highest levels of harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Another paper found black women more likely to report post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms than their white peers following harassment and assault.

In general, 1 in 4 women told the EEOC they experienced sexual harassment on the job. This rate rose to about 40 percent when women were asked about their experience with behaviors that constitute sexual harassment, such as threats or bribes with a sexual component and unwanted sexual attention. And yet these numbers fail to capture the full extent of workplace harassment. The EEOC report states that “the least common response of either men or women to harassment is to take some formal action.” The agency offers several explanations for this phenomenon, including victims’ fear of disbelief and concerns about retaliation.

These worries demonstrate one component of the psychological distress that can arise from harassment. A meta-study of scholarship on the psychological and physical effects of workplace sexual harassment, published in 2008, found targets may experience depression, difficulty sleeping and headaches.

This roundup compiles scholarship on sexual harassment and assault, with an eye on health and demographic trends. It features experimental research on strategies to reduce harassment, inquiries into military sexual assault and barriers to reporting.


Effects on health

Sexual Orientation, Race, and Trauma as Predictors of Sexual Assault Recovery
Sigurvinsdottir, Rannveig; Ullman, Sarah E. Journal of Family Violence, October 2016, Vol. 31. DOI: 10.1007/s10896-015-9793-8.
Abstract: “Sexual minorities and racial minorities experience greater negative impact following sexual assault. We examined recovery from sexual assault among women who identified as heterosexual and bisexual across racial groups. A community sample of women (N= 905) completed three yearly surveys about sexual victimization, recovery outcomes, race group, and sexual minority status. Bisexual women and black women reported greater recovery problems. However, black women improved more quickly on depression symptoms than non-black women. Finally, repeated adult victimization uniquely undermined survivors’ recovery, even when controlling for child sexual abuse. Sexual minority and race status variables and their intersections with revictimization play roles in recovery and should be considered in treatment protocols for sexual assault survivors.”

Discrimination, Harassment, Abuse, and Bullying in the Workplace: Contribution of Workplace Injustice to Occupational Health Disparities: Injustice and Occupational Health Disparities
Okechukwu, Cassandra A.; et al. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, May 2015, Vol. 57. DOI: 10.1002/ajim.22221.
Findings: “Members of demographic minority groups are more likely to be victims of workplace injustice and suffer more adverse outcomes when exposed to workplace injustice compared to demographic majority groups. A growing body of research links workplace injustice to poor psychological and physical health, and a smaller body of evidence links workplace injustice to unhealthy behaviors. Although not as well studied, studies show that workplace injustice can influence workers’ health through effects on workers’ family life and job-related outcomes.”

Prevalence and Mental Health Correlates of Harassment and Discrimination in the Workplace: Results From a National Study
Rospenda, Kathleen M.; Richman, Judith A.; Shannon, Candice A. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, May 2009, Vol. 24. DOI: 10.1177/0886260508317182.
Abstract: “This study describes past-year prevalence and effects on mental health and drinking outcomes for harassment and discrimination in the workplace (HDW) in a nationally representative random digit dial phone survey conducted in 2003-2004 (n = 2,151). HDW measures included experiences and perceptions of sexual harassment (SH) and generalized workplace harassment (GWH), and perceived harassment or discrimination because of race or ethnicity. Prevalence was examined by sex, race, age, occupation, marital status, and education. Effects of HDW were assessed controlling for demographics and job and life stressors. Experiencing multiple types of HDW was common. SH was more prevalent among women, and Blacks and those of other or mixed race or ethnicity experienced the highest levels of HDW overall. HDW variables explained additional variance in problem drinking and mental health beyond life and job stressors, particularly for women. This study demonstrates that HDW is a prevalent problem associated with poor mental health and problem drinking in the U.S. workforce.”

Examining The Job-Related, Psychological, and Physical Outcomes of Workplace Sexual Harassment: A Meta-Analytic Review
Chan, Darius K-S; et al. Psychology of Women Quarterly, December 2008, Vol. 32. DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.2008.00451.x.
Findings: The results of this meta-analysis confirm that sexual harassment experiences are adversely related to a multitude of job-related, psychological, and physical outcome measures. The effects were still significant after correcting for sampling and measurement errors. More importantly, our findings that the effect sizes varied substantially imply the presence of moderating factors. Subgroup analyses found that age and the type of sexual harassment measure used moderate the relationships between sexual harassment and its postulated outcomes.

Effects of Racial and Sexual Harassment on Work and the Psychological Well-Being of African American Women
Buchanan, NiCole T.; Fitzgerald, Louise F. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 2008, Vol. 13. DOI: 10.1037/1076-8998.13.2.137.
Abstract: “Research on workplace harassment has typically examined either racial or sexual harassment, without studying both simultaneously. As a result, it remains unknown whether the co-occurrence of racial and sexual harassment or their interactive effects account for unique variance in work and psychological well-being. In this study, hierarchical linear regression analyses were used to explore the influence of racial and sexual harassment on these outcomes among 91 African American women involved in a sexual harassment employment lawsuit. Results indicated that both sexual and racial harassment contributed significantly to the women’s occupational and psychological outcomes. Moreover, their interaction was statistically significant when predicting supervisor satisfaction and perceived organizational tolerance of harassment. Using a sample of African American women employed in an organizational setting where harassment was known to have occurred and examining sexual and racial harassment concomitantly makes this study unique. As such, it provides novel insights and an important contribution to an emerging body of research and underscores the importance of assessing multiple forms of harassment when examining organizational stressors, particularly among women of color.”

Is Workplace Harassment Hazardous to Your Health?”
Rospenda, Kathleen M.; et al. Journal of Business and Psychology, September 2005, Vol. 20. DOI: 10.1007/s10869-005-6992-y.
Abstract: We examined cross-sectional and lagged effects of sexual harassment (SH) and generalized workplace harassment (GWH) on incidence of self-reported illness, injury, or assault in a sample of over 1,500 university employees. SH and GWH, but not other job stressors, were related to increased odds of illness, injury, or assault. This was true when SH, GWH, and illness, injury, or assault were measured at the same time point, as well as when SH and GWH were measured in year prior to illness, injury, or assault.



Social Hazards on the Job: Workplace Abuse, Sexual Harassment, and Racial Discrimination — A Study of Black, Latino, and White Low-Income Women and Men Workers in the United States
Krieger, Nancy; et al. International Journal of Health Services, January 2006, Vol. 36. DOI: 10.2190/3EMB-YKRH-EDJ2-0H19.
Abstract: “This study documents the prevalence of workplace abuse, sexual harassment at work, and lifetime experiences of racial discrimination among the United for Health cohort of 1,202 predominantly black, Latino, and white women and men low-income union workers in the Greater Boston area. Overall, 85 percent of the cohort reported exposure to at least one of these three social hazards; exposure to all three reached 20 to 30 percent among black women and women and men in racial/ethnic groups other than white, black, or Latino. Workplace abuse in the past year, reported by slightly more than half the workers, was most frequently reported by the white men (69 percent). Sexual harassment at work in the past year was reported by 26 percent of the women and 22 percent of the men, with values of 20 percent or more in all racial/ ethnic-gender groups other than Latinas and white men. High exposure to racial discrimination was reported by 37 percent of the workers of color, compared with 10 percent of the white workers, with black workers reporting the greatest exposure (44 percent). Together, these findings imply that the lived — and combined — experiences of class, race, and gender inequities and their attendant assaults on human dignity are highly germane to analyses of workers’ health.”


Military sexual assault

Military Sexual Trauma Among Recent Veterans: Correlates of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment
Barth, Shannon K.; et al. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, January 2016, Vol. 50. DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2015.06.012.
Discussion: “This study documents high prevalence of MST [Military Sexual Trauma] among Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF)-era veterans, with more than 40 percent of women and 4 percent of men reporting MST, and represents the first population-based study of MST among recent veterans to the authors’ knowledge. These issues should be routinely considered when assessing the health needs of OEF/OIF-era women veterans. The prevalence of MST among men, though smaller, still indicates a population of more than 60,000 men with recent military service who have experienced MST. Research and healthcare services that address MST should continue to target both male and female veterans. These estimates underscore the importance of public awareness, ongoing availability of comprehensive services, and continued investigation of the public health impact of MST.”

Reporting Sexual Assault in the Military: Who Reports and Why Most Servicewomen Don’t
Mengeling, Michelle A.; et al. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, July 2014, Vol. 47. DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2014.03.001.
Findings: Of the 1,339 active and veteran servicewomen interviewed, 205 said they experienced sexual assault in the military (SAIM) and 25 percent reported their experiences. Those who did not report listed confidentiality concerns, “beliefs that nothing would be done” and worries about treatment by peers. The researchers found that the experiences of those who reported validated these fears. There were not statistically significant differences by age, race, marital status, service type, branch, current military status, or deployment experience between reporters and non-reporters. Reporting did vary by education — those with some college education were less likely to report than those who received a high school education or less.


 Reporting in the military

The (Un)Reasonableness of Reporting: Antecedents and Consequences of Reporting Sexual Harassment
Bergman, Mindy E.; et al. Journal of Applied Psychology, April 2002, Vol. 87. DOI: 10.1037//0021-9010.87.2.230.
Abstract: “This study places the reporting of sexual harassment within an integrated model of the sexual harassment process. Two structural models were developed and tested in a sample (N=6,417) of male and female military personnel. The 1st model identifies determinants and effects of reporting; reporting did not improve — and at times worsened — job, psychological, and health outcomes. The authors argue that organizational responses to reports (i.e., organizational remedies, organizational minimization, and retaliation) as well as procedural satisfaction can account for these negative effects. The 2nd model examines these mediating mechanisms; results suggest that these mediators, and not reporting itself, are the source of the negative effects of reporting. Organizational and legal implications of these findings are discussed.”



Face the Consequences: Learning about Victim’s Suffering Reduces Sexual Harassment Myth Acceptance and Men’s Likelihood to Sexually Harass: Reducing Sexual Harassment Myth Acceptance
Diehl, Charlotte; Glaser, Tina; Bohner; Gerd. Aggressive Behavior, November 2014, Vol. 40. DOI: 10.1002/ab.21553.
Abstract: “Prior research has shown that (1) better knowledge about the consequences of rape goes along with less rape‐supportive attitudes and lower rape proclivity, and (2) empathy with the victims correlates negatively with sexual aggression. In two experiments, the authors combined these approaches in order to reduce sexual harassment myth acceptance (SHMA) and the likelihood to sexually harass (LSH). In Study 1, 101 male and female university students read a report describing sexual harassment as either serious or harmless, and completed scales assessing dispositional empathy and SHMA. Results showed that higher empathy was associated with lower SHMA; furthermore, learning about the seriousness (vs. harmlessness) of sexual harassment led to lower SHMA, particularly in participants low in empathy. Gender differences in SHMA were fully explained by gender differences in empathy. In Study 2, perspective taking, a crucial aspect of empathy, was manipulated. One hundred nineteen male and female participants read either a neutral text or a description of a sexual harassment case, which was written either from the female target’s or from the male perpetrator’s perspective; then they completed scales measuring SHMA and (only male participants) LSH. The target’s perspective led to lower SHMA and to lower LSH than did the neutral text, whereas no such effect was found for the perpetrator’s perspective. Implications for intervention programs are discussed.”

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