Sexual harassment: How far have we come?

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The definition of sexual harassment might be more researched than the events themselves.
The definition of sexual harassment might be more researched than the events themselves.

A special report on sexual harassment in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology has attempted to determine how far society has come in addressing the problem during past 20 years.

James Campbell Quick and M. Ann McFadyen posed the question: “Sexual Harassment: Have We Made Any Progress?” in their follow-up study to a report published in JOHP in 1998. The answer is: yes, no, and maybe.

The divided response is due to the morphology of the issue rather than the concrete evaluation of its resolve. The researchers found that sexual harassment complaints decreased 28.5% from 1997 to 2011. However, there was a 15.3% increase in sexual harassment complaints reported by men, though women's report rates are still higher. This could be due to a reduced stigma effect against men complaining in the work environment rather than to an increase in sexual harassment issues among men.

Evidence suggests that targets of sexual harassment often experience social and psychological adverse effects, including depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, job stress, anxiety and burnout. Men who experience sexual harassment were not likely to seek treatment for depression and were more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, particularly veterans, who are 10 times more likely to experience sexual harassment in the military.

The authors noted that increased frequency and decreased intensity of sexual harassment did not differ greatly in mental impact from decreased frequency and increased intensity, though cognitive evaluations must be recorded to better understand victim sexual harassment experiences.

Settlements for complaints as well as complaints ruled with “no reasonable cause” have also increased by 60% and 28%, respectively. In addition, the authors noted that from 1997 to 2011, merit resolutions (39%) and monetary benefits (6%) have increased as well. While these data are based on the sexual harassment complaint decline, there is still evidence in studies that suggest >50% of working women and >30% of working men are reporting that they experience sexual harassment in the workplace.

Furthermore, according to the authors, in the past, the most challenging aspect of studying sexual harassment was properly defining it. They noted that many researchers studied the definitions of sexual harassment rather than studying the phenomenon itself. Consequently, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission changed its definition of sexual harassment multiple times to adapt to changing society. Sexual harassment was considered, in 1998, to be predominantly a “woman's problem,” while now it is accepted that the LGBT community, as well as heterosexual men, can be at risk to encounter sexual harassment in the workplace.

The authors commented that harassment might actually be related to gender, not sexuality, but added that although “gender harassment” or “sex-based harassment” is more common than “sexual harassment,” more research must be conducted to understand how this reflects today's society and how the LGBT community can be targets of sexual harassment.

“From a public health perspective, there is a real need to know more about harassers, aggressors, abusers, and the role power dynamics play in causing sexual harassment,” the authors wrote. “Why? Because with this new information and evidence about risk factors, then surveillance indicators and systems can be put in place to address this preventable, if not always predictable, occupational health problem.”

Reference

  1. Quick JC, McFadyen MA. Sexual harassment: have we made any progress? JOHP. 2017 July. doi: 10.1037/ocp0000054.
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