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Study reveals biases against women who report sexual harassment

On Behalf of | Sep 18, 2023 | Employment

Women who report sexual harassment often suffer backlash from coworkers. But men accused of harassment often receive sympathy.

To better understand this phenomenon, a team of researchers from Syracuse University and the Universities of British Columbia and Utah explored the impact of personal values on people’s reactions to workplace misconduct.

Sexual misconduct study

The authors of the study examined 5,413 instances of alleged sexual misconduct in workplace environments. The reports ranged in level of severity and spanned a range of industries.

As they assessed the details of the cases, the team paid particular attention to the moral values of third-party individuals. They also tracked the consequences to the alleged perpetrators.

Influence of morality

The researchers proposed a model to explain the variety of responses to workplace sexual misconduct. According to this model, when coworkers look at conflicting information, they instinctively assess organizational injustice through the lens of their moral values.

In the study, coworkers with strong opinions about loyalty, authority and purity were less likely to believe a woman who accused a male coworker of misconduct. They tended to express anger toward female accusers and sympathy toward male perpetrators.

Impact on sanctions

Accusers with low credibility experienced more severe social sanctions such as ostracization. Perpetrator credibility played a similar role in punishment. These findings underscore how ingrained moral values can influence punitive decisions.

Managers also had an impact. Those who portrayed reporters of harassment as disloyal increased negative judgments and emotions toward them by others. Managers also prompted favorable judgments and emotions toward alleged perpetrators.

Practical implications

In the workplace, 54 to 81% of women have experienced sexual harassment. By recognizing the influence of coworkers’ perceptions, organizations can develop more fair responses to these common allegations of workplace misconduct.