Prototypical Women and Credibility in Sexual Harassment Claims.

How are women perceived in sexual harassment cases? In the past, many women have been afraid to come forward.

Washington University conducted a study on sexual harassment. More than 4,000 persons participated in the sexual harassment study. The research-supported premise was that more women are sexually harassed than men.

The following were three main research questions being considered:

  • Who are victims of sexual harassment?
  • What constitutes sexual harassment?
  • How are claims of sexual harassment perceived?

Sexual Harassment Victims

Most women perceived to be victims of harassment shared common attributes. These women were “prototypical women.” Prototypical women were perceived to be:

  • Young
  • “Conventionally” attractive
  • Feminine in appearance and behavior
  • Weak or incompetent

What constituted sexual harassment?

Researchers presented scenarios that showed the different ways sexual harassment could manifest. Here were some scenarios they used:

  • Quid pro quo expectation (For example, receiving a promotion or raise in exchange for sexual favors)
  • Unwanted advances with no quid pro quo
  • Gender harassment (Example: hostile comments and behaviors tied to a person’s gender)

One scenario described a supervisor putting his hand around a female employee’s waist. Another scenario had the employer asking the female employee about her boyfriend. Some scenarios included blatant examples of sexual harassment. Others contained more subtle examples.

How are claims of sexual harassment perceived?

In one experiment, the researchers showed the participants digitally manipulated headshots. Some images of women appeared more feminine looking and others appeared more masculine looking. Participants also read written scenarios involving sexual harassment (as described above). The researcher asked the participants which image represented the woman in the scenario they had read about. Some participants were asked to draw pictures of the woman they envisioned as being either harassed or not harassed, based on the assignment.

Researchers also asked participants to what degree the victim was harmed and whether the alleged perpetrator deserved punishment.

Findings of the study

The findings were consistent. Overall, the participants perceived victims of sexual harassment to be prototypical women. In the exact same scenarios that involved non-prototypical females, participants were less likely to consider the action to be sexual harassment. They perceived these victims as less credible. Furthermore, they saw the victims as less harmed by the harassment and judged the harasser as less deserving of punishment.

What does this mean for sexual harassment cases?

Unfortunately, it means that women who do not fit the prototype could have a more difficult time obtaining justice in a sexual harassment claim. Biased perception could result unjust legal outcomes.

If you have been sexually harassed, make sure you consult with an experienced lawyer who has the knowledge and skills to seek a favorable outcome for your case. Call the Law Office of Peter A. Romero today at (631) 257-5588 or contact us online.