Genders Disagree on Harassment

B O S T O N, Nov. 5, 2001 -- A drink after work may be just a friendly gesture to a man, but his female coworker is likely to perceive the invite as a form of sexual harassment, say researchers.

Psychologists at the University of Minnesota may have shed light on what makes courtroom drama, like that surrounding the Clarence Thomas hearings, so contentious. By examining how men and women perceive sexual harassment, the researchers found that men are not as quick to apply the term.

The study, reported in the current issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, analyzed 62 previous surveys involving more than 33,000 men and women.

The findings say that women have broader definitions of sexual harassment than men, and are more likely to take issue with more subtle social-sexual displays. "The more ambiguous the behavior, the greater the gender difference," says lead author Maria Rotundo.

Not So Innocent Acts

As part of the analysis, the researchers divided behavior examples into seven categories and then looked at whether men and women categorized each behavior as sexual harassment.

The analysis uncovered a pattern in which women felt more threatened about behavior constituting "hostile work environment harassment," which could create an abusive working environment.

Though there were not vast differences between gender perception overall, when situations such as those involving derogatory attitudes and dating pressure were questioned, the women tended to apply a more distrustful definition.

For example, the study found that men were more likely to view sex-stereotyped jokes or repeated requests for dates as innocent acts, while women were more likely to find these behaviors threatening.

When it came to the more traditional definition of sexual harassment, there was a clear consensus. Sexual conduct combined with the granting or denial of employment benefits, defined as "quid pro quo," satisfied both genders' definitions of sexual harassment much more consistently.

"Men and women agree that sexual coercion and sexual propositions constitute sexual harassment," say the authors, "However, they do not necessarily agree that sex-stereotyped jokes or repeated requests for dates after refusal do."

Gender Justice

Their findings may bring courts a step closer to assuring justice in future cases.

While most courts, including the Supreme Court, rely on an updated "reasonable person" standard for the perspective of judge and jury, debate about whether the view of the harassee or an objective person ensues.

"The findings bring us close to preventing sexual harassment," says social psychologist Mark Whatley. "Sexual harassment is still fairly prevalent, more research would be a great benefit."

As for explaining the origin of the gender differences, Rotundo says that's a question for further studies. "Maybe its socialization or value systems, there's room for research to investigate why," says Rotundo.

"It's a tough area to tease apart," says Whatley, "gender differences are really a result of both nature and nurture."