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Link between workplace sex harassment and negative view of self has weakened

New research shows that women are less likely to take the experience of sexual harassment out on themselves, but there is still much work to be done, writes Dr Bob Murray.

At last, some really good news! A survey analysis suggests that, between 2016 and 2018, the relationship between workplace sexual harassment and women’s negative self-views weakened. The findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Following the spread of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, public discussion of sexual harassment of women has soared. In light of this, the research team wondered whether the increased awareness might have changed the victims’ perception of themselves in the last two years.

The researchers compared results from surveys conducted in September 2016 and September 2018. More than 500 women answered questions about their experiences with workplace sexual harassment, their self-esteem and self-doubts. Participants were aged 25 to 45 and were full-time employees in the U.S.

What the researchers say: “Eighty-seven percent of the participants reported experiencing workplace sexual harassment.

“However, reported levels of unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion dropped between 2016 and 2018. The researchers speculate this could be due to increased fear of negative consequences for perpetrators. Meanwhile, reported levels of gender harassment – non-sexual harassment stemming from negative gender views – increased, perhaps as a backlash to the new movement.”

The analysis confirmed earlier findings that showed a strong link between workplace sexual harassment and lower self-esteem/higher self-doubt. But surprisingly this link weakened between 2016 and 2018. The researchers hypothesise that this was related to increased feelings of support and empowerment that the participants reported experiencing in response to the #MeToo movement. These findings represent the first analysis of changes in workplace sexual harassment between 2016 and 2018.

The authors conclude: “We need to expand our focus on gender harassment and the ways that men and women can work together to improve workplace culture. The brave women who championed the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements should know that their efforts are making a difference.”

So, what? Forever I have been saying that for the perpetrator, there is really very little difference between the various forms of harassment or abuse. A man doubtful of his manhood will seek to “prove himself” by sexually harassing a subordinate – be it male or female. Almost all harassment originates in the abuser’s perception of their own disempowerment or loss of status or privilege.

As our society becomes more unequal, sexual, childhood, racial and other abuse will increase. We may be able to reduce sexual harassment, and the fact that women are less likely to take the experience out on themselves is great. But it’s rather like a crime wave: you stamp it out in Brooklyn and it simply moves to the Bronx.

The sense of victimhood (Donald Trump is a prime example) that the abusers harbor will simply be expressed in other forms of abuse. Trump got elected largely by lesser educated white men because he was an abuser, not despite it. He gave his followers permission to abuse in whatever way they felt able to, collectively or individually.

Dr Bob Murray is a clinical psychologist and principal of Fortinberry Murray. This post originally appeared on Dr Murray's blog.

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