Date Published: July 17, 2019
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Ksenia Keplinger, Stefanie K. Johnson, Jessica F. Kirk, Liza Y. Barnes, Valerio Capraro.
Over the last two years, awareness about the sexual mistreatment of women has stunned the world. According to analysis by the New York Times, the defeat of Hilary Clinton and election of Donald Trump spurred a women’s movement in the US that began in November of 2016 and resulted in protests across the country, including the largest single-day protest in history on January 21, 2017. Later that year, the #MeToo movement (starting in October 2017) and subsequent #TimesUp movement (starting in January 2018) galvanized women to unite against sexual assault and sexual harassment, which has become the hallmark of the current women’s movement. But has anything changed over this time period in regard to the sexual harassment of women? Using a repeat cross-sectional survey from over 500 women collected at two points in time (September 2016 and September 2018), we found reduced levels of the most egregious forms of sexual harassment (unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion) but increased levels of gender harassment in 2018. More importantly, sexual harassment had a weaker relationship with women’s negative self-views (lower self-esteem, higher self-doubt) in 2018 compared to 2016. Qualitative interviews collected from women in the fall of 2016 and in the fall of 2018 from the same women, support the quantitative data. They suggest that the changes in sexual harassment are due to the increased scrutiny on the topic. The interviewees also emphasize that they feel better supported and empowered and are not ashamed to speak up about sexual harassment.
Over the last two years, awareness about the sexual mistreatment of women has stunned the world. According to analysis by the New York Times , the defeat of Hilary Clinton and election of Donald Trump spurred a women’s movement in the US that began in November of 2016 and resulted in protests across the country, including the largest single-day protest in history on January 21, 2017. Later that year, the #MeToo movement (starting in October 2017) and subsequent #TimesUp movement (starting in January 2018) galvanized women to unite against sexual assault and sexual harassment, which has become the hallmark of the current women’s movement . The #MeToo movement provided evidence of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment, becoming the largest social movement related to sexual harassment in history with 12 million Facebook posts and 15 million impressions (the number of times the content was displayed) within 48 hours of its inception.
Study 1: Sexual harassment survey 2016 and 2018. To ensure a 99% chance of finding an effect for the expected interactions, assuming a medium effect size (Expβ1 = 1.3), and .05 R2 from other predictors, a power analysis suggested we would need approximately 380 participants. Our final sample comprised 513 women. In September 2016, the authors conducted an online survey using a Qualtrics panel of 250 professional women to gauge the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment. The participants ranged in age from 25 to 45, were working as full-time employees in the US, had an average of 10.6 years of work experience, and the majority were mid-level employees (62%) and White (75%). Participants were paid to participate in a Qualtrics Panel study and were asked questions about their experiences as professionals. In September 2018, we conducted a second survey using another Qualtrics panel. The sample included 263 women who ranged in age from 25 to 45, were working as full-time employees in the US, had an average of 11.5 years of work experience, and were majority mid-level employees (60%) and White (70%). Table 1 provides a summary of the two samples. We controlled for work experience, position level, and race (White/non-White) in the analyses to account for differences. The use of online panels such as Qualtrics is becoming more common in the social sciences and recent comparisons with conventional datasets support the use of the samples .
Descriptive statistics show that gender harassment is the most common type of sexual harassment followed by unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion. Although the estimates of sexual harassment range from study to study, 87% of women in our sample reported that they had experienced at least one form of sexual harassment. This is similar to other estimates of about 80% . Relatively few women reported that they had experienced sexual coercion, the most egregious type of sexual harassment. In fact, in 2016, 25% of women reported being sexually coerced and in 2018, that number declined to 16% of women. Means, standard deviations and intercorrelations appear in Table 2.
We complement our quantitative data with qualitative interviews collected in 2016 and in 2018. We coded and analyzed the data as they were collected using a grounded theory approach [23, 24]. First, two independent researchers performed line-by-line open coding by reading through the data multiple times and generating a large number of conceptual labels in NVivo 11. In addition, we open coded field memos that were written after each interview. Examples of open codes include, “I get a lot of sexual advances that are not necessarily wanted” and “I had a guy ask me if I’ve had any work done up there.” The next step involved axial coding—reassembling the data in ways that allowed us to explore the relationships between and within categories . We identified the most important and frequent concepts and grouped them into more generalizable categories (e.g., sexual coercion, reporting sexual harassment, self-doubts, etc.). Contacting several participants after interviews to clarify the emerged concepts helped us to refine the categories. We kept collecting data and coding them until we reached the point of theoretical saturation at which the new data did not provide any new information . In our case, no new codes emerged from the data after the 30th interview, and data collection ceased after the 31st interview. Because the initial interviews were very broad (the experiences of attractive women at work), themes that were unrelated to sexual harassment also emerged (e.g., others doubting one’s competence). Because we were particularly interested in sexual harassment, we do not include those data here and we focused our second round of interviews (2018) exclusively on sexual harassment and the #MeToo Movement.
The women’s movement that has emerged over the last two years will hold a profound place in history, particularly in relation to the sexual harassment of women. Yet, its impact has not been empirically examined, to date. Although we cannot prove causality, this study offers the first attempt to assess changes in the experience of sexual harassment for women in the workplace over the last two years. In our sample, 87% of women reported experiencing some type of sexual harassment. Women reported lower mean levels of sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention in 2018, but a higher mean level of gender harassment compared to in 2016. From a theoretical perspective, it is possible that sexual harassment has declined in the workplace because of increased fear of being punished or having one’s reputation diminished . The fact that the most egregious form of harassment has declined appears to be good news on the surface; but gender harassment can have an equally negative impact on women because of its pervasive and continued nature and could reflect backlash against women in an effort to maintain the gender hierarchy in society .