Last updated: August 18, 2019
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The psychological consequences of sexual harassment and gender discrimination are the result of a complex series of interactions between the victimized person, the perpetrator(s), the victim’s associates and supervisors at work, and the significant people in his or her personal life. If the victimized person is male, gay, or a member of a cultural or ethnic minority, these dynamics may take on special characteristics.

Many clinicians have, however, identified theoretical links between the dynamics of workplace harassment and discrimination and other forms of abuse against women and girls (Bernstein ; Lenhart, 1993; Cleveland ; McNamara, 1996; Fitzgerald, 1993; Koss, Goodman, Browne, Fitzgerald, Keita, ; Russo, 2004). Childhood sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence, sexual exploitation in professional relationships, and sexual harassment and gender discrimination all reinforce (1) traditional gender role socialization, (2) female subordinate status, (3) sexual objectification and devaluation of women, and (4) social complicity for the exploitation and abuse of women and girls. Bernstein and Lenhart (1993) have documented the clinical and treatment implications of these similarities. People victimized by these abuses share many common clinical issues, including (1) difficulty in extracting themselves from the abusive situation exacerbated by some form of physical, economic, emotional, or social pressure; (2) difficulty with sociocultural invalidation and nonsupportive bystanders who collude with the abuser; and (3) similarities in psychological sequelae.

Several authors (Bernstein ; Lenhart, 1993; Cleveland ; McNamara, 1996) have noted that people who experienced sex discrimination and those victimized by domestic violence are similar. They often share

A sense of humiliation and a tendency to conceal the event
A sense of betrayal of trust and abuse of power
Fears of retaliation and economic hardship if the incident is revealed or reported
Physical, economic, or social power differentials between the victimized person and the perpetrator
Similar emotional responses
Isolation from support and concealment or minimization of the event by the perpetrator and others in the immediate environment
Victimized individuals and those close to them often report on the intense and polarizing impact of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. There is great disparity regarding how people define sexual harassment and gender discrimination and how they react to those who are victimized. These disparate perspectives are accompanied by intense affect. This can be seen as the effect not only of individual and gender differences in perception but also of dynamics of dominant-subordinate interactions. Women are more likely than men to define an event as sexual harassment or gender discrimination and also to perceive the event as threatening, negative, or both, in outcome. Men are more likely to perceive women’s friendly behavior as indicative of sexual interest and to see the workplace as an equitable environment. They are joined by a subset of women that focuses primarily on career, minimizes differences in equity in the workplace, and is reluctant to identifywith a subordinate group. Pryor and Whelan (1997) have noted that the dominant members of society and work organizations, who are predominantly male, label, organize, and define the social and work realities. They fail to integrate the perceptions and experiences of subordinate groups, rendering them invisible. Dominants also resist and punish those who raise issues. The format of the current complaint system and a litigation process that forces an assignment of blame (who is right and who is wrong), as opposed to mediating a resolution of the situation, further enhances the polarization processes. Victimized individuals may encounter difficulties with validation and support not only within their workplace but also within their personal lives. The embeddedness and unconsciousness of gender-based and dominant-subordinate based differences in perception and the strong association of male with dominant and female with subordinate status make it likely that the intense polarization process surrounding these issues will be long-standing. This impact will be felt by victimized individuals, perpetrators, their superiors, and their coworkers, as well as by significant people in their personal lives. Because of the intensity of this polarization process, significant disruptions in the victimized individuals’ work and personal relationships are common in discrimination or harassment situations, especially if the wronged person files a complaint or a lawsuit. Often these disruptions are as traumatic for the victimized person as the discrimination itself was.

Valued mentors and supervisors may be lost if they are the perpetrators of harassment and discrimination or if they fail to support and validate a victimized woman’s experience and efforts for redress. Co-workers may ostracize her as a troublemaker or a slut. They may capitalize on any managerial retaliatory actions by taking over her work, her position, or both, if she is demoted. They may side with the perpetrator and the work organization and either retaliate against her directly or fail to validate or support her efforts for redress, even if they have witnessed the events. Coworkers who have been supportive in private may be unwilling to come forward publicly. Others who have suffered discrimination may be too frightened to join in the complaint. The institution may employ the use of “token women” spokespersons who publicly deny discrimination and praise the organization, or it may promote other women to discredit the victimized woman’s claims of discrimination. Female mentors may deny the discrimination or become too demoralized to help. Spouses and significant others may identify with the perpetrator or become worried that the woman is having an affair or in some way invited sexual overtures. They may become intrusive into the workplace to protect her or insist upon her taking impulsive legal action. Fathers may overidentify with management and discourage assertive action or overidentify with their daughters and insist that the woman take actions that may not be in their best interest. They may also intrude into their daughters’ workplaces to handle the situation themselves. Mothers may feel embarrassed by the public exposure of their daughters in a sexual situation or feel guilty that they did not sufficiently prepare their daughters for the inequities in workplace. Daughters may identify with mothers who are victimized and feel frightened or discouraged. The complexities of the polarization process are unlimited.

Sexual harassment and gender discrimination among special populations involves special dynamics, which have been largely unexamined.


Same-Sex Harassment and Discrimination of Women


Sexual harassment of women by other women is a relatively uncommon experience. Most survey results parallel those of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, which tracked unwanted sexual experiences among a large number of federal employees in three large-scale studies occurring in 1981, 1987, and 1995. In 1981 only 3% of women victims reported female perpetrators, and by 1995 the numbers decreased to 1% female perpetrators. Special inhibitions in victimized individuals’ responses may occur in this unusual type of situation, but empirical data regarding the specifics of the interaction are not yet available. If the victimized woman is heterosexual, she may hesitate to utilize direct methods, such as reporting her harasser if her harasser is a superior or if she is embarrassed or fearful that others may misperceive her as gay. If the victimized woman is gay herself, she may avoid direct complaints because of fear of exposing her sexual orientation in the workplace or encouraging the criticism of her gay community for complaining about one of their own and bringing adverse publicity to the community. Gay women who are already out of the closet are most often tokens within organizations and therefore subject to the discriminatory group dynamics. Their token position within their organization may complicate any complaints they would wish to make. Female mentors and bosses who deny discrimination and identify with dominant norms in the workplace may perpetuate discrimination behaviors via the same mechanisms as their male colleagues. They may also enjoy their token status and wish to eliminate any potential competition from other women (the queen bee syndrome). They may feel embittered by the barriers they encountered and believe their junior colleagues should have to endure the same treatment. All of these behaviors are particularly demoralizing to victimized women.


Same-Sex Harassment and Discrimination of Men


In the same U.S. Merit Systems Protection Boards studies, men victimized by unwanted sexual attention identified male perpetrators in one fourth to one third of the incidences they reported. In a more recent and specific study of male victims by Waldo, Berndahl, and Fitzgerald (1998), there were indications that male-to-male harassment may be more common (approximately 50% of incidences of gender harassment, including unwanted sexual attention). A man who is harassed by a male superior may fear reporting for the same reasons as his female counterpart. A homosexual man victimized by another homosexual man may be inhibited in the same way as his female counterpart. A study by Waldo, Berndahl, and Fitzgerald (1998) demonstrated that a significant proportion of victimized men encounter a different dynamic, which is related less to sexual attention than it is to enforcement of the traditional male stereotype. This results in devaluing or degrading comments that are directed toward men who are perceived as gay or feminine or who are performing traditionally female roles, such as child care. This form of gender discrimination is unique to victimized men and is perceived as more upsetting than is unwanted sexual attention (Waldo, Berndahl, ; Fitzgerald, 1998).


Harassment of Men by Women


With the exception of this study by Waldo and associates, most of the research indicates that victimized men are most frequently harassed by women who are coworkers or subordinates. Thus, the women are not in a position to significantly influence the jobs or careers of the men they harass. In addition, in the larger cultural context, male sexual attractiveness and virility are considered enhancing to, rather than detracting from, men’s professional competence and status. It is not surprising that in this context, men, in contrast to their female counterparts, often consider sexual harassment flattering, mutual, nonthreatening to their work and career goals, devoid of negative consequences, and therefore not meriting formal complaint or litigation (Gutek, 2005). Nonetheless, they are vulnerable to negative sequelae when their harasser is in a position to damage them at work. There is also some evidence to suggest that as women become more prominent in the workplace, the harassment of men may increase as an expression of abusive power. Kline (1993) noted that in one large organization with many female managers and where the CEO condoned discriminatory behavior, the women managers harassed their male subordinates at a significantly higher rate. At this time, however, men are victimized at much lower rates than women are, and their experiences carry fewer of the negative sequelae experienced by women.


Sex Discrimination Involving Cultural and Ethnic Minority Groups


Several issues should be considered in understanding the victim-perpetrator dynamics involving victimized members of racial or cultural minority groups, such as Hispanic, Asian, African American, and Native American individuals. Both the occurrence and the characteristics of these interactions have been widely discussed in the literature but have been grossly understudied. Thus, little can be said with empirical certainty. Many factors have been identified as contributing to the complexity of the discriminatory experiences of women of color by perpetrators who are of the same race or who are Caucasian.

Social stereotypes associated with race may encourage perpetrators to view victims in highly sexualized and nonprofessional ways. Victims may even be perceived as deserving and inviting harassment and discrimination. Examples include the Jezebel and Sapphire stereo-types, which portray African American women as promiscuous, hypersexual, and easily appropriated by white men or as evil, manipulative, amoral, and disloyal. Asian stereotypes of women include features of exotica, passivity, and submission to men. The Latino stereotype of the hot-blooded, passionate woman who submits to a dominant, macho Latin man is also prevalent. Stereotypes of minority women as maids or nannies living in affluent households contribute to their perception as lowskilled workers, who are available for sexual exploitation by their affluent employers and are unsuitable for high-status, highly compensated leadership positions (Adams, 1997).

Other factors strongly associated with racial minority status include low-status and low-pay positions, low social status, cultural and economic marginality, numerical minority, or token status within workgroups. All of these constitute high-risk factors for sexual harassment and discrimination, as well as limited possibilities for redress. They represent the combination of racial and gender discrimination toward women of color (Adams, 1997).The tradition of sexualizing racial discrimination is characteristic of the African American slave experience, which includes several features (Lerner, 1992):

Black women share in all aspects of oppression of Blacks in general.
Black women are objects of exploitive sex by White men.
The rape of Black women is employed as a weapon of terror directed against the entire Black community.
When Black men are prevented through social taboos and violence from defending their own women, the oppression of all Blacks is heightened and institutionalized.
When Black men are oppressed economically to an extent that they cannot secure steady employment at decent wages, many Black women are deprived of the support of a male breadwinner and must take on additional economic burdens and psychological burdens (Lerner, 1992, p. 149).
Learner also describes an institutionalized system of racism that includes limited economic opportunities, sexual exploitation, and the devaluing of the relationships between African American men and women. This combination of sex and racial discrimination may be applicable to other racial and ethnic minority groups and can make it difficult for victimized women to determine the difference between sexual harassment and gender discrimination or sexual racism. They may view their experience as racism and thus respond differently than their White counterparts do. Their perception of a lack of protection, a lack of credibility, and a lack of value compared to White women may make it far more likely that they do not report, seek redress, or seek professional help for their problems. The sense that they will not be better treated elsewhere may also prevent them from leaving discriminatory situations. The likelihood of their seeking direct help and redress can also be complicated by religious and cultural values that place high credence on female modesty and virginity and that value domestic roles over work roles. Women coming from cultures such as this may find it difficult to bring attention to their situation and to advocate for better working conditions for themselves. Minority women may also limit the nature of their interpersonal contacts with White men at work, in order to avoid discriminatory behaviors. This may exclude them from career-enhancing relationships. An extreme version of this inhibition is the self-restriction of career patterns. Evans and Herr (2001) present evidence that African American women alter their career patterns in order to escape harassment and discrimination and choose protected fields that serve their communities, such as law, health care, social service, and education. How extensive this self-limiting of career pathways to avoid discrimination is among other minority groups remains to be studied.

If a sexual harassing or discriminatory experience is perpetrated by a member of the same racial or cultural minority as the victimized woman, additional factors may be activated, causing the perpetrator to expect protection and support from his community and the woman to suppress her complaint. If the perpetrator is advancing in the workplace and can be seen as a successful role model, the pressure on the woman to suppress her complaint and not speak out against one of her own race is exacerbated (e.g., Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas). Many minority communities follow the tradition of (1) male leadership, (2) community representation by men, and (3) traditional gender stereotype roles for men. In these circumstances, community advocacy against racism will take priority over advocacy against sexism. Bell (1992) has described an old boys’ club within the African American community, which may protect perpetrators for these reasons. Cultural and religious values favoring modesty, virginity, and domestic-centered roles for women may also discourage victimized women from complaining and seeking help.

As previously mentioned, empirical data regarding gender discrimination involving racial minorities are rare. What is known is primarily focused on African Americans and Hispanics and runs contrary to most theoretical hypotheses of higher prevalence and low complaint rates. Barak (1997), in a review of cross-cultural data, did not find significant differences in incidence rates between Caucasian and minority women with regard to sexual harassment. Gruber and Bjorn (1996) and Koss, Gidycz found a larger prevalence of sexual victimization against White women as compared to minority women. Culbertson, Rosenfeld, and Booth-Kewley (1992) found no support for the hypothesis that Black women respond less assertively to complaints than do White women. How much these results are affected by minority individuals’ underreporting of sex discrimination, labeling their situations racism rather than sexism, or segregating themselves into low-risk work environments is not known. The scarcity and lack of comprehensiveness of current data do not allow for sweeping conclusions. As the diversification of the workforce intensifies, adequate study and understanding of these interactions will become even more essential.

Secondary victims

Secondary victims are those who are not directly involved in an interaction or a discriminatory experience but who witness it at work, usually on a continual basis. Occasionally, these secondary victims file complaints of hostile environment discrimination, and the negative consequences to these individuals can equal or even surpass those affecting the primary victim. The likelihood of this type of victim remaining silent and working in a hostile environment for prolonged length of time is highly likely and places the person at risk for negative psychological consequences, even though he or she was not directly involved in the discriminatory interaction.






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