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Sexual harassment victims less assertive than they planned

Expecting sexual harassment victims to react stronger than we would can lead to blame, the study said.

People imagine they would assert themselves strongly against sexual harassment but are more likely to react passively when confronted with it in real life, a US study has found.

The gap between how people think they would react and how they do can exacerbate a culture of victim-blaming, the study’s authors said.

Mismatched expectations can lead people to blame women for not standing up “strongly enough” against harassment – even though we may react in a similar way in the same situation, said the study, titled Double Victimization in the Workplace: Why Observers Condemn Passive Victims of Sexual Harassment and published in the journal Organization Science.

“If we can increase the accuracy of our predictions and realise we won’t stand up for ourselves as often as we would like to think, we will be less condemning of other victims,” study author Dr Ann E. Tenbrunsel, Professor of Business Ethics at the US’ University of Notre Dame said in a statement.

The study involved a group of 47 young women who were given a scenario where a woman faced sexually harassing questions during a job interview and asked to assess her response and predict their own reaction.

The questions included: “Do you have a boyfriend?”, “Do people find you desirable?” and “Do you think it is important for women to wear bras to work?”

Over 80% of participants predicted they would have reacted more strongly than the woman in the scenario did. The results were compared with another study that showed a majority of women did nothing when actually faced with harassment in such a scenario.

“The more confrontation participants forecast for themselves, the more they condemned the candidate,” the study said.

“These results suggest that observers have negative impressions of victims who do not behave as they imagine they themselves would behave, despite the fact that their actual behaviour would likely be a far cry from those forecasts.”

Associate Professor Paula McDonald, an researcher of sexual harassment from the Queensland University of Technology’s Business School, said the study was consistent with her own research.

“Our findings show that targets often want to and intend to respond assertively to the harasser, realise that an assertive response is important in making the harassment stop, and even rehearse – to themselves or with the assistance of their supporters and/or family members – a clear and direct message that the harassment is unwanted and offensive,” she said.

“They consistently report however, that when the situation arises, they often fail to do so. There are many reasons for this, but it sometimes leads to feelings of failure, or that their lack of assertion makes them complicit in the continuation of the sexual harassment.”

Dr McDonald said research showed that when targets respond assertively to harassing conduct, the behaviours are more likely to be named by witnesses as sexual harassment and targets are more likely to be believed.

Another sexual harassment researcher, Adjunct Professor Jeanne Madison from the University of New England’s School of Health said the findings should not surprise anyone who has been on the receiving end of sexual harassment.

“Harassers often count on surprising the harassed, or catching the harassed ‘off guard’. We all think of great rejoinders well after the fact, no matter the kind of incident in question,” she said.

“The harasser can be, and usually is, physically, economically, organisationally, socially more powerful which also reduces the chances of an assertive, or heaven forbid, aggressive, instant response.”

Few people anticipate the many different forms of harassment, she said, which can range from boorish rudeness to physical assault.

“After the huge amount of knowledge, research and publicity, over several decades, about sexual harassment, recipients still hear, ‘Can’t you take a joke?’, ‘I was only kidding’ and ‘What’s the matter with you?’”

Associate Professor Madison called on organisations to widely publicise zero tolerance policies and take every complaint seriously.

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