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Sexual harassment claims by less feminine women perceived as less credible

Researchers say that women who don't fit feminine stereotypes -- including looks, personality and interests -- are often taken less seriously when lodging a sexual harassment complaint. Photo by Quinn Kampschroer/Pixabay
Researchers say that women who don't fit feminine stereotypes -- including looks, personality and interests -- are often taken less seriously when lodging a sexual harassment complaint. Photo by Quinn Kampschroer/Pixabay

Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Women who don't fit female stereotypes of look or personality are perceived as less credible when lodging sexual harassment claims, according to a study published Thursday in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

To be perceived as stereotypically feminine, women in Western societies are expected to appear thinner, "attractive," youngish and wear feminine clothing.

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In addition to looking the part, women looking to meet expectations of stereotypical femininity must also act the part -- a love of shopping and pilates helps, as does a preference for romantic movies over action films, the researchers offer as examples.

"Sexual harassment is pervasive and causes significant harm, yet far too many women cannot access fairness, justice and legal protection, leaving them susceptible to further victimization and harm within the legal system," study co-author Cheryl Kaiser said in a news release.

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"Our research found that a claim was deemed less credible and sexual harassment was perceived to be less psychologically harmful when it targeted a victim who was less attractive or did not act according to the stereotype of a typical woman," said Kaiser, a professor of social psychology at the University of Washington.

Sexual harassment is a pervasive problem, and its consequences can persist beyond short-term shame and humiliation.

Victims of sexual harassment are more likely to disengage at work and school, and to experience declines in mental and physical health. Studies have shown sexual harassment is even associated with increased economic instability.

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"Perceiving sexual harassment involves noticing a behavior that might qualify as harassment and linking that behavior to gender-based group membership," said study co-author Bryn Bandt-Law.

"We wanted to understand what happens when the victim does not look or act like a stereotypical member of that gender-based group," said Bandt-Law, a doctoral student at the University of Washington.

For the study, researchers recruited a few thousand participants to consider sexual harassment claims in order to understand how a volunteer's perception of the victim's femininity influenced their sympathies.

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In first 5 of the 11 different experiments, volunteers first read scenarios in which women either did or did not experience sexual harassment.

Based on their readings, participants were then asked to determine the extent to which the women fulfilled an idealized image of women -- either by drawing what they thought the woman might look like or selecting from a series of photographs.

In the next four experiments, participants read ambiguous sexual harassment scenarios, like a superior asking about a woman's romantic situation.

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Each scenario was accompanied by a description of the woman -- some meeting the criteria of stereotypical femininity, others not. The participants were asked to determine whether the scenarios constituted sexual harassment.

"We found that participants were less likely to label these ambiguous scenarios as sexual harassment when the targets were non-stereotypical women compared with stereotypical women, despite the fact that both stereotypical and non-stereotypical targets experienced the same incident," said study co-author Jin Goh, an assistant professor of social psychology at Colby College.

In the final two experiments, researchers presented the same scenarios but reversed the descriptions of the women, from stereotypically feminine to not and vice versa. The participants' interpretations followed accordingly.

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"Our findings demonstrate that non-stereotypical women who are sexually harassed may be vulnerable to unjust and discriminatory treatment when they seek legal recourse," said Bandt-Law.

"If women's nonconformity to feminine stereotypes biases perceptions of their credibility and harm caused by harassment, as our results suggest, it could prevent non-stereotypical women who are sexually harassed from receiving the civil rights protections afforded to them by law," she said.

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