Does acting like "one of the boys" make you more likely to be harassed?

So says a new study, which claims harassment has more to do with punishment than with desire.


Catherine Price
May 15, 2007 10:20PM (UTC)

An Australian reader tipped us off to this story from the Sydney Morning Herald about a new study on sexual harassment in the workplace.

The article, "Don't Want to Be Harassed? Stop Acting Like a Man," describes a study that asserts that women who act like "one of the boys" are more likely to be sexually harassed than are women who are more traditionally feminine.

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The paper, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, was based on a series of studies of nearly 550 people -- students and employees in male- and female-dominated organizations, says the Herald.

The study was run by Jennifer Berdahl, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. Berdahl noticed that when previous researchers tried to explain the phenomenon of sexual harassment, they often assumed it was caused by sexual desire: A man was attracted to a woman and therefore made unwanted sexual advances toward her. Under this hypothesis, said Berdahl, women who were considered the most "feminine" -- i.e., closest to "gender ideals" -- were also the most likely to be harassed. (Yes, there are obviously unaddressed issues in this theory -- like women who harass men and men who prefer more assertive women -- but I'm just reporting the study here.)

Berdahl disagrees with this theory. She asserts that actually the opposite is true -- women who act like men are the ones who get the most harassment. She thinks that this is because most sexual harassment has little to do with sexual desire; instead, it's used to keep women in their place.

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The idea that sexual harassment is about control and power is not that surprising. What's interesting about Berdahl's hypothesis is that it means that the women who act the most like men -- which Berdahl defines as showing stereotypical characteristics like assertiveness, independence and dominance -- are the most likely to be harassed. She calls this phenomenon "gender harassment" and defines it as "a form of hostile environmental harassment that appears to be motivated by hostility toward individuals who violate gender ideals rather than by desire for those who meet them."

She concludes that the women who get harassed the most are the ones who work in male-dominated fields and try to act like "one of the boys." (I'm skipping over thorough descriptions of her studies, including the one that shows that women are harassed more in workplaces where there are more men, but if you're interested, you can read the full paper here.)

Berdahl's study is interesting in that it reveals a potential Catch-22 -- if you're in a male-dominated workplace environment, the natural coping reaction would probably be to try to fit in by acting like your male peers. But if Berdahl's assertions are correct, that would also make you more likely to be harassed. Thoughts?

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Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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