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The Rights Stuff Forum: Backlash

Researching Backlash

Heather McLaughlin, Graduate Student, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota

Heather McLaughlinA new study of sexual harassment in the workplace made headlines this fall, because its results surprised many: women in supervisory or managerial positions are more likely to be sexually harassed at work than women who are not supervisors, the study found. To some, conventional wisdom might suggest the opposite — that women with less power in an organization might experience more sexual harassment, because they would be perceived to be more vulnerable. But this University of Minnesota study found that almost 50 percent of female supervisors had been sexually harassed on the job, while only one-third of women who were not supervisors had reported harassment. Other studies have also found that women supervisors experience more sexual harassment than their female nonsupervisory counterparts who presumably have less clout. The study's principal investigator, University of Minnesota sociology graduate student Heather McLaughlin, observed in releasing the study that "male coworkers, clients and supervisors seem to be using harassment as an equalizer against women in power." McLaughlin elaborated on the study's finding in an interview.

Comments from Heather McLaughlin

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Question: You were quoted as saying that male coworkers, clients and supervisors seem to be using sexual harassment as an equalizer against women in power. It's clear that female supervisors reported more harassment than women who were not supervisors. Did the study provide any other data suggesting that men are uncomfortable with women in positions of authority and using sexual harassment as an equalizer?

Heather McLaughlin: In the survey we asked those who had been targets of sexual harassment about who was doing the harassing. And we found that coworkers were more likely than supervisors to harass others. So it's not this quid pro quo situation, where sexual favors are exchanged for employment decisions, but rather it's this more hostile work environment.

We didn't really ask survey respondents about the harassers' perceived motivations — to get at that, we did interviews with a subset of respondents. Those who were supervisors did suggest this was going on — many talked about experiencing sexual harassment from individuals who just think women should be secretaries. We had someone who was quoted as saying, "if we had someone with balls in this position, we'd be getting things done." So they did experience a lot of backlash from other employees. And this was particularly true for women in more male dominated industries, where perhaps these beliefs are even stronger about what women are capable of doing.

Was the backlash and harassment against women in supervisory positions coming from other supervisors who were at an equal level, from people who were at a level higher in the organization, or from people who were at a lower level than the female supervisors?

With our sample of about 700 people, it was hard to really get at that. We didn't have a large enough sample to really statistically say what is most common. But we did have women talking about harassment from other supervisors, coworkers, and from subordinates as well.

Does it seem surprising that subordinates would sexually harass supervisors? Would they not be concerned about consequences?

We always hear about cases — the Clinton scandals, or the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings — where it's a supervisor and a subordinate, but these are really exceptional cases. We are finding that's not the usual situation — that even when you have less power, you may still perceive that you can get away with it (sexual harassment), that there aren't consequences, and a lot of times, unfortunately, there aren't. Women who are suffering through this talk about their concern that, if they say something, they will draw attention to themselves and they won't be accepted as one of the guys — as being able to do their job adequately. A lot of times, when they do say something, their supervisors tell them, just go home, think about it, it's not a big deal. Their complaints are not really taken seriously sometimes.

So a female manager might have even less protection from sexual harassment then a lower-level employee — if their supervisor believes that they should be able to "deal with" the harassment because they are managers.

I can't answer that for sure with our data. But my guess is that that is probably the case — if you are given this responsibility, you should be able to handle it, and if you can't, maybe you shouldn't be a supervisor.

When female supervisors were sexually harassed, what form did the sexual harassment most often take?

We asked about eight different behaviors, including those that some would consider borderline harassment. I think the most common were discussing sex and suggestive stories, and then staring or leering, and then offensive pictures. Quid pro quo was the least common form.

The book Backlash was published about 18 years ago, and dealt with hostility toward the advances made by career-minded woman. Do you see a correlation between the arguments raised in that book, and the findings of your research? How can we best understand the motivations of those who are doing the harassing?

There are two separate lines of theory. The first is that those who have the least amount of power are the most vulnerable to sexual harassment, so those would be women who are racial minorities, or those in precarious positions with less job security. But the alternate hypothesis is this "power threat" model — that those who pose a greater threat to male dominance are more likely to be targets. That more highly-educated women, women who don't have a family, who don't have a husband and kids — these are the types of women who are more likely to experience harassment.

There is still a lot of research that needs to be done on the topic to confirm those findings. But in terms of our evidence, we are finding this "power threat" hypothesis to better explain our data. And it really has been framed a lot of times as a sort of backlash argument — they're threatening the dominant position of men in the workplace, and that's why they are experiencing harassment.

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