Science Of Sexual Harassment: Consequences Known, But Effective Solutions Lacking

on October 18 2013 5:10 PM
sexharassgrafitti
Anti-sexual harassment graffiti reading: "No Touching Allowed: Castration Awaits You." Flickr via Creative Commons/Lilian Wagdy

Science journalism is currently gripped by conversations about sexual harassment following testimony from several women outing a Scientific American blog editor, Bora Zivkovic, for inappropriate behavior. Now that the revelations have been made, the natural question is: what next? How can we prevent it from happening again?

Since sexual harassment often flies under the radar, it can often be hard to study its roots – and its effective treatments. But there is no doubting that it is pervasive.

In a 2011 poll conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post, one in four women said they’d been harassed at work. On the street, estimates of street harassment vary: one poll of Londoners found that 43 percent of women between 18 and 34 were harassed in public spaces; online polls conducted by anti-harassment groups tend to find even higher percentages (in some cases this may be due to self-selection -- a woman or man who’s been harassed is probably more likely to be aware of anti-harassment campaigns and respond to surveys). But the problem of underreporting hangs overhead; how can we ever truly comprehend the scope of what women have to deal with every day?

When news of a serial harasser breaks, often men are flabbergasted. Magazine writer Anna Hart pointed out in a recent column for The Telegraph that most men can’t fathom the toll of harassment, because they haven’t lived it.

While Hart is routinely catcalled while jogging, her husband “enjoys blissfully silent, commentary-free, meditative jogs on the same circuit on the same park - a depressing indication of how men and women still experience the world differently,” Hart wrote in the Telegraph. “Talk to any male runner about it - sure, they get the occasional dumb comment from a group of teenagers or a drunk, but nothing like what women get every time we go outside, especially in running shorts.”

There’s a wealth of research on the consequences of sexual harassment for women. It can lead to PTSD-like symptoms, strained relationships with other partners, as well as feelings of social isolation or alienation from coworkers.

What are some of the causes of sexual harassment? Despite popular perceptions, it’s usually not about innocent flirtation. In one 2008 study published in the journal Sex Roles, researchers interviewed 80 men from the Arlington, Texas area. They found that a man was more likely to exhibit harassing behavior if he was also more likely to suspect that women were criticizing and rejecting him.

 "These findings also support recent speculation that men’s sexual harassment of women is related to aggression rather than seduction,” the authors wrote.

When you turn to the literature to try and find scientific evidence for what interventions actually work, there’s an incredible gap of scientific evidence. In his 2007 meta-analyses reviewing 8 studies from between 1995 and 2006, researcher Bruce Douglas found that diversity training tends to have only a small effect on attitudes or behavior. Other studies also report just marginal benefits from sexual harassment prevention training.

“The lack of quantitative studies on diversity training continues to be prevalent,” Douglas wrote.

So what is to be done? There may be another avenue to help the victim that doesn’t rely on educating the harasser: all the other people in the office. Bystanders – such as people who hear about sexual harassment through the office grapevine, or directly from the harassed colleague – can also be powerful tools in combating harassment in the workplace, according to a July 2012 report from the Australian Human Rights Commission.

“If we don’t support and encourage the targets of sexual harassment, and any bystanders, to take action, we run the risk of creating cultures that tolerate sexual harassment,” Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said in 2012. “It is up to organizations to provide this support and encouragement, thereby making it clear that sexual harassment has no place in our workplaces or in our society.”

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