Sexual harassment is any behavior characterized by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other social situation. Although it affects both males and females, women are extremely more likely to experience sexual harassment at work by male employees. There is extensive research on this subject as well as the psychological effects of sexual harassment on one’s personal and professional life. One article specifically states that women who have been harassed are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, and will also face consequences in their career. They are either forced to withstand the harassment without reporting it or are asked to leave their jobs if they do report it. Unfortunately, because of this, many instances are not reported. It’s important for organizations to continually bring up this topic so that employees can be aware of the signs.
Power can be seen as the core of sexual harassment. Popular characterizations portray male supervisors harassing female subordinates, but power-threat theories suggest that women in authority may be more frequent targets. One article analyzed longitudinal survey data and qualitative interviews to test why and how supervisory authority, gender nonconformity, and workplace sex ratios affect harassment. Researchers found that female supervisors are more likely to report harassing behaviors and to define their experiences as sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can serve as an equalizer against women in power, motivated more by control and domination than by sexual desire. Interviews point to social isolation as a mechanism linking harassment to gender nonconformity and women’s authority, particularly in male-dominated work settings. This suggests that sexual harassment is both physically and emotionally damaging.
It’s important to clarify the distinction between sexual harassment and workplace violence. Workplace violence involves making harmful statements about internal personal attributes while sexual harassment deals with external and gender attributes. They both have significant negative consequences for employees’ job attitudes, performance, and psychological and physical well-being. However, research shows that victims of workplace violence may experience stronger adverse outcomes than victims of sexual harassment. This is due to the fact that victims of workplace aggression are more likely than victims of sexual harassment to personalize the mistreatment and make internal attributions. In other words, negative outcomes of workplace aggression were stronger in magnitude than those of sexual harassment. Not to say that the effects of sexual harassment are minimized in this comparison, but this just highlights how damaging an unhealthy work environment can be for one’s personal and professional life.
If you or anyone you know has or is currently being harassed at work, there are resources available to help you recognize the signs and how to effectively report it.
Herschcovis, M. S. & Barling, J. (2010). Comparing victim attributions and outcomes for workplace aggression and sexual harassment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(5), 874-888. doi: 10.1037/a0020070
McDonald, P. (2012). Workplace sexual harassment 30 years on: A review of the literature. International Journal of Management Reviews, 14(1), 1-17. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2370.2011.00300.x
McLaughlin, H., Uggen, C., & Blackstone, A. (2012). Sexual harassment, workplace authority, and the paradox of power. American Sociological Review, 77(4), 625-647. doi: 10.1177/0003122412451728