In the #MeToo Era, Women Experience Less Self-Blame When Facing Sexual Harassment

New research suggests the nature of workplace harassment, and the way women respond to it, are both changing.
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Woman and man in a workplace.

Although the researchers found that levels of unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion decreased from 2016 to 2018, they found that non-sexual gender harassment rose.

Needless to say, harassment of women in the workplace has not stopped simply because we have entered the #MeToo era.

But new research suggests it has changed in several significant ways. Rates of unwanted sexual attention and overt sexual coercion both decreased from 2016 to 2018. But more subtle forms of harassment, such as sexist remarks, have increased.

Most importantly, being a victim of workplace harassment was linked to low self-esteem in 2016, but not in 2018. The fact so many women have come forward with their stories has apparently reduced the stigma and shame that harassment has traditionally produced.

That's a potentially profound shift given the widespread nature of this pernicious phenomenon. "In our sample, 87 percent of women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment," reports a University of Colorado research team led by Ksenia Keplinger and Stefanie Johnson.

The study, in the open-access online journal PLoS One, featured 513 professional women—250 who participated in September of 2016, and another 263 who did so in September of 2018. All were between the ages of 25 and 45 and worked full-time; around 60 percent of each sample described themselves as "middle level" employees.

All participants responded to 18 questions regarding sexual harassment, answering each on a scale of zero (not at all) to four (completely). These included questions on non-sexual gender harassment (whether a co-worker or supervisor had made sexist remarks or displayed sexist material); unwanted sexual attention (such as whether they had been leered at or ogled while on the job); and sexual coercion (including whether anyone "subtly bribed you with rewards for sexual cooperation").

They also completed a standard 10-item questionnaire measuring their level of self-esteem, and a separate, three-item survey designed to measure self-doubt. The latter included items such as "I wonder whether my success has come from my physical appearance."

After taking into account years of experience and rank in the workplace hierarchy, the researchers found levels of unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion decreased from 2016 to 2018, but non-sexual gender harassment rose. They cautioned against celebrating these trends, noting that the latter form of harassment "can have an equally negative impact on women because of its pervasive and continued nature."

Their most striking finding was that "sexual harassment had a weaker relationship with women's negative self-views in 2018 compared to 2016."

The researchers report that, in 2016, women who experienced a large amount of unwanted sexual attention had lower self-esteem than those who experienced little or none. By 2018, there was no significant difference in the self-esteem level of the two groups.

Similarly, in 2016, women who had experienced a lot of unwanted sexual attention also had higher levels of self-doubt. While that was still true in 2018, the impact of the harassment was significantly reduced.

"There is strong evidence that disclosing an experience that is highly stigmatized by society can improve self-esteem when people feel validated and supported," the researchers write. "This could very well be what happened in response to the #MeToo movement. Seeing the accounts of so many women's sexual harassment experiences could have reduced the social stigma, allowing people to share their own experiences, and feel validated when others provided support and understanding."

This is a small sample, and there's no way to know for certain that these results are the direct result of a changed sociopolitical atmosphere. But follow-up interviews with a number of women suggested as much. Their comments indicated that "women feel greater support from their peers, and believe that the increased scrutiny on this topic has decreased the most egregious sexual harassment behaviors," the researchers write.

The results suggest sharing painful stories of sexual harassment can have a widespread positive impact. It's harder to blame yourself for an uncomfortable encounter when you realize many of your colleagues have had the same painful experience.

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