Sexual Harassment at Work: What Is the Problem?

By Ford, Robert C.; McLaughlin, Frank | Akron Business and Economic Review, Winter 1989 | Go to article overview
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Sexual Harassment at Work: What Is the Problem?

Ford, Robert C., McLaughlin, Frank, Akron Business and Economic Review

Sexual Harassment At Work: What Is The Problem?

As judicial decisions gradually expanded the Title VII Civil Rights Act prohibiting sex discrimination to include sexual harassment, the number of articles discussing this workplace problem also expanded. At present it would be difficult to find a volume of any personnel-related journal that did not contain at least one article addressing this topic. Indeed, with the Meritor vs. Vincent Supreme Court decision affirming employees' protection from harassment beyond the previously held legal position that no harassment can exist without some form of economic consequence to include the more vague concepts of "hostile environment" and "unwelcomed sexual advances," a new surge in sexual harassment claims, studies, and articles is inevitable.

While the issue creates interest and debate from academics and practitioners alike, these discussions have not yet led either to much agreement in definition or, surprisingly, much empirical research seeking to document what behaviors actually constitute sexual harassment or how pervasive it really is. From thenow classic Harvard Business Review-Redbook[4] survey to a more recent survey of American Society for Personnel Administration (ASPA) members[8], the call for more clarification of the nature and pervasiveness of sexual harassment at work stands as a reminder of how much empirical work remains to be done on this complicated topic. Indeed, in a review of various studies, court decisions, and legislative actions, Wesman[35] concludes that there are several major unresolved questions about sexual harassment in need of further research including identifying what behaviors are perceived as harassment, whether different employees define it differently, and how extensive it really is.

Wesman's[35] conclusions illustrate an important aspect of the sexual harassment debate that warrant considerably greater clarification than can be currently found in the literature. This is that sexual harassment is a multidimensional topic that includes behaviors that are partly objective in measurement and definition and partly perceptual. To some extent, then, the debate over sexual harassment tends to get lost in the term's use in describing a wide variety of behaviors ranging from sexual assualt to telling offensive jokes to a variety of behaviors and actions[24].


Since much of the popular literature discussing this important topic tends to obsure and sensationalize the problem by generalizing all behaviors under this emotionally loaded term, it has been difficult for managers to design and implement policies and procedures that might eliminate or diminish sexual harassment in their organizations. The purpose of this paper is to begin consolidating what is known about the nature and extent of sexual harassment in order to initiate more specific discussions and research investigations into exactly what behaviors are sexual harassment and how frequently each of these behaviors occurs in the workplace. The method for reaching this purpose is to review the available literature reporting empirical studies of sexual harassment, compare the results of those that report reasonably similar methodologies or research designs, and attempt to draw some conclusions on the basis of these data that can allow better insight into the nature and pervasiveness of this problem than is currently available in the sexual harassment literature.


There have been a number of studies conducted on the extent and nature of sexual harassment over the past decade. These utilize a wide variety of research methodologies and designs ranging from a relatively casual airport survey[25] and Redbook[29] reader responses by 9,000 women to the extensive survey work of Barbara Gutek and others[9, 10, 11, 12]. Beyond the typical difficulty in comparing data across a wide variety of studies in any field of active intellectual inquiry, the problem in this area is aggravated by the continuing lack on consensus on exactly which behaviors constitute sexual harassment.

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Sexual Harassment at Work: What Is the Problem?


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