Narrow Prototypes and Neglected Victims: Understanding Perceptions of Sexual Harassment

When it comes to sexual harassment, people perceive women who possess less feminine features as less credible victims and view their perpetrators as less deserving of harsh punishment. 

Introduction

Perceptions of sexual harassment are at the core of determining whether misconduct has occurred and whether claims of harassment have legitimate grounds to move forward in a legal or punitive context. However, these perceptions are difficult to rely on because they may be susceptible to dismissing a potentially harassing incident as one where the target was somehow welcoming the harassing behavior.

The perceived harm experienced by a victim can shape judgments of that particular victim’s credibility (i.e., victims are perceived to be more credible if they are also perceived to be more distressed). Perception of harm can go so far as to shape legal judgments, such as the level of punishment assigned to a perpetrator or the amount of compensation awarded to a victim.

Prototyping victims (e.g., how we view people based on their physical appearance, behaviors, interests, and attitude) plays a key role in how people perceive incidents of sexual harassment. Prototypical women, in Western cultures, are expected to possess feminine features and to be interpersonally oriented whereas non-prototypical women tend to embody stereotypically masculine characteristics, physical features, and traits. Because non-prototypical women diverge from stereotypical female representations, they often receive backlash or are dismissed in their experiences of sexual harassment.

In this study, the authors seek to explore whether women who do not have prototypically feminine physical and psychological features are less likely to be identified as targets of sexual harassment than women who do have such features. Secondly, this study explores whether the harassment of non-prototypical women is more difficult to recognize and if such victims are, in turn, perceived as less credible, which may then shape the degree of punishment assigned to perpetrators of sexual harassment.

Findings

There is overlap between the mental representation of sexual harassment targets and the prototypes of women. Study participants – students and adults – consistently perceived sexual harassment targets as more prototypical of women than non-harassed targets.

  • Both women and men perceived sexual harassment targets to be prototypical women.
    • Participants perceived targets of harassment as more prototypically feminine than those who did not experience harassment. For example, they drew more prototypical women and selected more feminized photos to represent targets of sexual harassment than non-harassed targets.
  • When confronted with an ambiguous work incident that could potentially be construed as sexual harassment, participants deemed a prototypical target to be more likely to have experienced harassment than a non-prototypical target, even though they experienced the same exact incident. 
  • When participants saw photos of or read about a non-prototypical and/or prototypical woman who had made a sexual harassment claim against a coworker, they rated the non-prototypical woman as being less credible and less psychologically harmed by sexual harassment.
    • In one scenario, participants also recommended a more lenient punishment for the perpetrator when the target was a non-prototypical woman compared with a prototypical woman. This finding was reversed in a different harassment scenario, where participants did not recommend more lenient punishment for the perpetrator when the target was non-prototypical.
    • Female and male participants rated the credibility of prototypical and non-prototypical women similarly.

This study showed that people believe prototypical women are more likely to experience harassment, although applied research consistently shows that less prototypical women are at greater risk of harassment. This is likely because understandings of sexual harassment are related to beliefs about gender-based group membership, resulting in a flawed and consequential overlap between social prototypes of women and of harassment victims. The study was limited in that it did not explore categorical variation among women, such as race, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Methodology

The authors conducted three thematic studies that included over 4,000 participants from 11 different experiments. The studies varied in their methodological approaches and integrated a variety of measures such as physical drawings, face perception tasks, and survey ratings.

Study Series A: Mental Representations of Sexual Harassment Targets

This series comprised five multimethod experiments examining people’s mental representations of sexual harassment victims. Participants read descriptions of workplace sexual harassment incidents that included inappropriate physical contact, unwanted romantic interest, or exposure to crude, pornographic content. The control condition entailed reading about non-harassment incidents. Participants then provided assessments of the extent to which the targets in the descriptions fit with the prototype of women on a 7-point Likert scale. Their mental representation of the victim was captured via drawings, face perception tasks, noise-based reverse correlation, and impression ratings. 

In Study A1, participants (155 students) read about a woman whose boss either groped her (sexual harassment condition) or bumped into her (control condition) and were instructed to make a drawing of her. In Study A2, participants (401 Mechanical Turk workers) read the scenarios from Study A1 and chose one photo from an array of six female faces (three feminized and three masculinized photos) they perceived to best resemble the woman in the scenario. In Study A3, participants (303 students) read a description of a female student whose supervisor showed unwanted romantic interest in her (sexual harassment condition) or asked her to work on meaningless tasks (control condition) and completed a modified photo selection. In Study A4, participants (283 Mechanical Turk workers) read about a woman whose manager showed her a picture of a penis as a crude joke (sexual harassment) or a picture of the new company logo (control) and completed the same modified photo selection task as in Study A3. In Study A5, participants (141 Mechanical Turk workers) generated images of the mental representation of a sexual harassment victim and anti-sexual harassment victim and then rated the prototypicality of a sexual harassment victim image and anti-sexual harassment victim image.

Study Series B: Prototypicality and Identifying Sexual Harassment 

Participants read about or saw a photo of a prototypical or non-prototypical woman who experienced a workplace incident that could potentially be perceived as sexual harassment. They then rated their perception of how likely it was that the behavior was sexual harassment. In Study B1, participants (329 Mechanical Turk workers) read a description of a woman who either embodied prototypical female attributes (e.g., and art teacher with stereotypically feminine personality traits and interests) or non-prototypical attributes (e.g., a physical education teacher with stereotypically masculine personality traits and interests) who was complimented by her principal on her appearance and was asked whether she was still dating her boyfriend. Participants then rated their perception of the likelihood of sexual harassment on a 1-7 Likert scale. In Study B2, participants (545 Mechanical Turk workers) read about a woman with either one of three feminized faces (prototypical condition) or one of three masculinized faces (non-prototypical condition) who consulted her supervisor on a problem she was facing and whose supervisor either put his hand on her waist (harassment condition) or in his pocket (control condition). Participants then rated their perception of the likelihood the woman was sexually harassed on a 1-7 Likert scale. In Study B3, participants (562 Mechanical Turk workers) replicated Study B2, but changed the harassment context to the supervisor placing his arm around the woman’s shoulder. Study B4 randomly assigned participants (484 students) to read a scenario about a teacher whose principal inquired about her dating life (harassment condition) or preparedness for a conference presentation (control condition), which was paired with a prototypical or non-prototypical face generated from Study A5.

Study Series C: Prototypes and the Impact of Sexual Harassment

In Study C1, participants (272 Mechanical Turk workers) were shown four “fuzzy” pictures of people (prototypical and non-prototypical women) and were asked to make a series of impression ratings. They then rated how much they believed and how confident they were that each person was sexually harassed by their coworker on a 7-point scale. Next, participants rated how psychologically harmed each person would be if they were sexually harassed by their coworker on a 7-point scale. Participants were told the company’s policy of a punishment severity system and they were asked how severely the coworker should be punished, with an informal warning being the least severe punishment and termination being the most severe punishment. In Study C2, participants (590 Mechanical Turk workers) read about a woman who was either described with prototypical or non-prototypical characteristics and were asked to complete the same credibility, psychological harm, punishment, and prototypicality ratings as in Study C1. 

Intersectionality

Related GAP Studies