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The workplace “equalizer”: female supervisors more likely to be targeted for sexual harassment

August 19th, 2009  |  Connie Eyer

>Last week, ground-breaking research regarding women in the workplace managed to create a buzz on a number of labor, science, health and feminist blogs. The first-ever, large-scale, longitudinal study to examine workplace power, gender and sexual harassment, presented August 8, 2009 at the 104th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, contended that female supervisors are more likely to be the targets of sexual harassment than women in lower-level positions. Surprised? One might think that a managerial title might offer a female employee some protection, but the study’s findings did not support that presumption.

The research concluded that nearly fifty percent of women supervisors, but only one-third of women who do not supervise others, reported sexual harassment in the workplace. In more conservative models with stringent statistical controls, women supervisors were 137 percent more likely to be sexually harassed than women who did not hold managerial roles.

“The study provides the strongest evidence to date supporting the theory that sexual harassment is less about sexual desire than about control and domination,” said Heather McLaughlin, University of Minnesota sociologist and the study’s primary author, adding that “male co-workers, clients and supervisors seem to be using harassment as an equalizer against women in power.” While supervisory status increased the likelihood of harassment among women, it did not significantly impact the likelihood for men.

In addition to workplace power, the sociologists found that gender expression was also a strong predictor of workplace harassment. More effeminate men were at a greater risk of experiencing more severe or multiple forms of sexual harassment, as were those employees who self-identified as non-heterosexual.

Sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, researchers used data on nearly 600 men and women who were part of the 2003 and 2004 Youth Development Study, which began in 1988 in St. Paul, Minnesota public schools.

So, what can employers do about this? Although McLaughlin recommends increasing and improving anti-sexual harassment education programs at work, she allowed that companies often treat the subject as a joke and merely provide such programs as a way to protect themselves from liability.

For those employers who desire more information on sexual harassment in the workplace, the EEOC website is an excellent resource that provides guidance, training and outreach. Employers are encouraged by the EEOC to take the necessary steps to prevent sexual harassment from occurring and to communicate to employees that it will not be tolerated. In addition to training, the EEOC notes, employers should also establish an effective complaint or grievance process and take immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.