An important empirical finding on #MeToo

A paper by Hart (2019) makes two empirical findings, one about bias against people who come forward as being sexually harassed and the other (more tentative) about the #MeToo movement’s effects on reducing stigma against sexual harassment victims. Here’s the abstract:

Although sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal, it often goes unreported. This study employs causal evidence to evaluate one deterrent to reporting: bias against women known to be sexual harassment targets. I theorize about the form this bias takes and test the argument with a national survey experiment run in five waves from October 2017 to February 2018, where participants were asked to propose employment outcomes for an employee with one of four harassment experiences. Participants were less likely to recommend a woman for promotion if she self-reported sexual harassment relative to otherwise identical women who experienced nonsexual harassment or whose sexual harassment was reported by a coworker. The woman who self-reported sexual harassment experienced normative discrimination: that is, the promotion bias was significantly mediated by perceptions that she was less moral, warm, and socially skilled than the woman whose coworker reported her sexual harassment. These results indicate that women may hesitate to report sexual harassment because they rightly perceive that doing so could cause them to experience bias. Yet they also suggest that bias can be avoided if a bystander reports the harassment. Finally, exploratory analyses suggest that in the wake of #MeToo this bias may be fading.

And here’s the relevant bit about the #MeToo movement:

Although participants reported a lower likelihood of promoting the woman self-reporting sexual harassment in October, November, and December, the magnitude of this penalty decreased with each month, and in January and February participants no longer expressed bias. In addition, although participants did not express a preference for either employee who had experienced sexual harassment in the first months of the study, in the final months they were more willing to promote the employees who had experienced sexual, rather than nonsexual, harassment.

While this analysis cannot pinpoint the cause of the declining bias, the fact that these changes are specific to women who experienced sexual harassment, and particularly the woman who self-reported sexual harassment, suggests that social activism emphasizing the prevalence of sexual harassment may have impacted perceptions of sexual harassment targets. Most study participants were aware of the contemporaneous activism: When asked about the #MeToo movement, two-thirds of participants were familiar with it in November and more than three-quarters were familiar with it in the following three months. Indeed, some participants even suggested that the movement may be reducing stigma associated with sexual harassment.

An important caveat, of course, is that this paper simply identifies a correlation and notes a plausible causal link.

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