A research article entitled “The Sexual Harassment of Uppity Women” caught my attention the other day.  An organizational behavior scholar at one of the world’s top tier business schools authored this research report article recently published in a leading scientific journal.  This posting starts a new important topic area on Psycholawlogy – Workplace Discrimination.

The subject matter of workplace discrimination interests me in two broad perspectives – individual and organizational.  Specifically, workplace discrimination in these perspectives has at least two important interrelated facets – personal harm and organizational dysfunction and leadership failure.

Workplace discrimination violates personal rights, causes physical and psychological harm, affects career satisfaction, and affects persons who are not targets of discrimination.  Apart from violating personal rights and law, workplace discrimination, which stems in part from organizational dysfunction and leadership failure, affects the bottom line for both the worker and the workplace.  Psycholawlogy will explore these and other facets of this new and important topic in greater detail in future postings.

This post talks about research which cracks open important new ground.  From an organizational perspective, the research – “the first systematic evidence” – sounds a clarion call for new thinking and better solutions to foster respect, equality, and civility and to prevent harm in the workplace.  Attorneys and other professional service providers and their workplaces have no privileges or immunities in these circumstances.

What is an “uppity woman”

The article title includes the word “uppity” for a specific reason.  The word “uppity” means going beyond one’s station or being presumptuous by taking liberties or assuming airs.  Uppity persons seem to present reasons that others use as justification to slap them down.

In the context of sexual harassment, the author describes the target in terms of “gender ideals”.  An “uppity woman”, as described by this investigator, violates feminine gender ideals.  A gender ideal is a belief about how men and women should think, feel, and behave.  Prescriptive sex stereotypes about physical and personality characteristics capture these ideas.  Personality characteristics more desirable in men include ambitious, assertiveness, dominance, and independence.  For women, being affectionate, compassionate, deference, gentleness, modesty, sensitivity to needs of others, and warmth are desired.  A line of research spanning over thirty years describes and a widely used measure of gender ideals for personality captures these characteristics.

An “uppity woman” steps out of place by assuming characteristics considered more desirable for men.  Because she expresses nontraditional beliefs and career ambitions, the “uppity woman” is a primary target.  A recent experiment noted in the article discussed two examples of “uppity women”.  That research provided “compelling evidence” that gender harassment sex discrimination is “motivated by a desire to punish women who do not conform to prescriptive sex stereotypes or to beliefs about how women should behave.”  Female bank managers was one example of the nontraditional woman, i.e. more likely a discrimination target.  The other – female attorneys.

How does sexual harassment relate to “uppity women”?

That is the question posed by the research.  According to the study’s investigator, hostile environment harassment does not involve trying to establish sexual or romantic relations.  Hostile environment harassment, also referred to as gender harassment or sexual or sexist hostility in psychological literature,  is the most common form of sexual harassment.  Gender harassment makes a target feel unwelcome in the workplace on the basis of sex.  Sexual hostility, not not sexual desire appears to motivate gender harassment, according to this researcher.  “Gender harassment undermines, humiliates, or rejects a target on the basis of sex with sexual and sexist remarks, jokes, materials, or pranks.”

The background section in the article reports about the development of the gender harassment concept.  It notes scholarly commentary, leading court cases, and reports of recent experiments.  “Evidence suggests that gender harassment women is primarily targeted at those who violate gender ideals.”  According to the article’s author, one of the most famous legal cases about sexual harassment, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, led some to propose that “this kind of sex discrimination is motivated by a desire to punish women who do not conform to prescriptive sex stereotypes or to beliefs about how women should behave.”

The investigator, citing to a separately authored parallel conceptual perspective, proposed that “sexual harassment generally derogates the target of harassment on the basis of sex and is most frequently targeted at women who violate prescriptive gender roles.”  The studies tested “the prediction that women who violate feminine ideals are most likely to be harassed in ways traditionally identified as harassing to women.”  The investigation focused on personality gender violations.  By this, the studies “examined a relatively subtle form of violating gender ideals and offer a strict test of whether sexual harassment is primarily targeted at “uppity women” who step out of place by assuming characteristics more desirable for men.”

What questions did the research studies investigate?

The investigator ran three experiments.  These studies examined the following hypotheses

  1. Whether women who have characteristics or engage in behavior considered more desirable for men than for women experience more sexual harassment than other women and men?
  2. Whether women with relatively masculine personalities are more likely than others to negatively evaluate the same potentially harassing behavior?
  3. Whether the results from study 1 replicate, with relatively masculine women experiencing the most sexual harassment on the job.
What measures did the research studies employ, why, and who participated?

The 3 research studies employed measurements of gender ideals for personality and sexual harassment.  The investigator used the short form of the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) to measure personality gender.  The BSRI includes personality characteristics considered more desirable for men than for women and characteristics considered more desirable for women than for men in American society.  According to the researcher, “Despite being developed more than 30 years ago, recent studies have shown that the BSRI continues to capture masculine and feminine ideals in American society.”  The BSRI tested the prediction that women with relatively masculine personalities had a higher likelihood than other women, and men, to experience sexual harassment.

The investigator also measured sexual harassment.  Questions adapted from the Sexual Experience Questionnaire derived by the study author in prior work measured whether behaviors considered traditional forms of sexual harassment by including the respondents’ evaluations of their experiences.  If the respondent considered the behavior as threatening and negative, (bothersome or stressful), then it counted as harassing.  The amount of the harassment reported ranged from “never experienced” to “experienced most of the time”.  The author wrote the items in behavioral terms which described experiences that both men and women can have.  The respondents simply had to indicate how often the experience occurred. Example items include “Made sexist comments or joke”; “Attempted to establish a romantic relationship despite your efforts to discourage it”; and “Treated you badly for refusing to have sexual relations with them”.

Undergraduate students in management courses completed the questionnaires employed in Studies 1 and 2.  The respondents’ answers in Study 1 related to experience in life domains, including school, during the previous two years.  The investigator asked participants in Study 2 to use the past 2 years, but to imagine that they had graduated from school and had started work.  The 800 participants in Study 3 worked in one of 3 male-dominated manufacturing or 2 female-dominated community service centers.  Study 3 constituted a “work setting” for this research study.

Results and Discussion

The results in Study 1 showed that being a woman with a relatively masculine personality as measured in the study predicted experiencing more sexual harassment.  Femininity did not matter.  In Study 2, women who described their personality in masculine terms did not show an increased likelihood to negatively evaluate potentially sexually harassing events.  The investigator surmised that this reflects an actual likelihood that relatively masculine women, again as measured by the study, experience more sexual harassment.  Study 3’s results showed that women with relatively masculine personalities averaged more than twice as much harassment in the work context as other women in male-dominated organizations.  The more women deviated from traditional gender ideals, by having a “man’s job” or or having a “masculine” personality, the more they were targeted for sexual harassment.

The lead sentence in the article’s discussion section states “These studies provide the first systematic evidence that women who violate feminine ideals are most likely to be sexually harassed in the social and working lives.”  Women with masculine personality gender were significantly more harassed in male-dominated domains.  The conclusion drawn from this research is that “sexual harassment as traditionally defined for women – as consisting of sexual and sexist comments, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion – is primarily targeted at women who step out of place by having masculine characteristics, or “uppity” women.” According to the investigator, the results point to an implication that sexual harassment is not driven by a sexual desire for women who meet feminine ideals.  Sexual harassment, by implication from the results according to the investigator, is driven out of a desire to punish those women who violate feminine ideals.  These women “step out of place”.  These are “uppity women”.  These women are primary targets of sexual harassment.

The investigator admits the limitations of the study.  The self-reports results of personality gender and sexual harassment experiences are correlations.  The results do not provide causal evidence. The “evidence” of motivation is indirect.  The sexual harassment target is studied and inferences are made about what motivates sexual harassment.  Future studies about motives of harassers should peel back more layers of this complex issue of social and work life.

File:Rosie the Riveter (Vultee) DS.jpg

How does this research relate to the legal profession and other professional service providers?

The short answer is “directly”.  Female lawyers, physicians, engineers, and consultants, to name a few, are most probably “uppity women”as described in the research article.  These women likely assume that role – masculine personality – because in their social and work environments that “role” is by necessity  their reality.  The process and effects of sexual harassment discrimination impose a heavy burden upon personal physical and psychological health and welfare as well as organizational effectiveness.  Those negative personal, professional, and organizational outcomes, and policies to address them, along with specific discussion about lawyers and the legal profession, will be examined on Psycholawlogy in later posts.

Thank you.  I appreciate your visit to Psycholawlogy.  It is hoped that this new and important topic – workplace discrimination – interests you.  If you have any questions, concerns, want to suggest a new topic, or want a copy of the article referenced here, please contact me through my web site, www.adlitemsolutions.com, or email me directly at dan@adlitemsolutions.com.  Please visit again soon.

Sources:  Berdahl, J. L (2007). The sexual harassment of uppity women. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/0021-9010.92.2.425

Image:  Rosie the Riveter, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosie_the_Riveter (accessed July 4, 2012).

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.
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