Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

The Incidence and Impact of Women's Experiences of Sexual Harassment in Canadian Workplaces

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

The Incidence and Impact of Women's Experiences of Sexual Harassment in Canadian Workplaces

Article excerpt

In the past two decades, sexual harassment in the workplace has become recognized as a serious social issue. For years, as women joined the paid labour force in greater numbers, sexual harassment (SH) was ignored, denied or even considered a natural or inevitable consequence of integrated workplaces. Representative sample surveys indicate that about half of working women experience some form of workplace SH (Canadian Human Rights Commission, 1983; Gutek and Morasch, 1982; Johnson, 1996; Loy and Stewart, 1984), making it the most widespread form of female sexual victimization (Fitzgerald and Shullman, 1993: 8).

This paper describes the findings of the Survey on Sexual Harassment in Public Places and at Work,(1) the largest Canadian survey devoted exclusively to SH. Following a brief review of the literature, this paper describes workplace SH, how women dealt with and were affected by it, and the relationship between SH characteristics and consequences.(2) We use the findings to discuss how organizational power theory may help explain effects and responses.

Review of the Literature

Types of Workplace Sexual Harassment

Beginning in the late 1980s, Louise Fitzgerald and her colleagues have worked on a typology of SH arising out of their Sexual Experiences Questionnaire (SEQ) (Fitzgerald et al., 1988). Their recent "tripartite model" includes gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion (Fitzgerald, Swan and Magley, 1997; see also Fitzgerald, Gelland and Drasgow, 1995; Stockdale and Hope, 1997). "Gender harassment" describes behaviours that indicate demeaning attitudes about women, e.g., the display of sexual materials. "Unwanted sexual attention" describes both verbal and non-verbal attention, e.g., requests for dates or staring. "Sexual coercion" includes the use of threats or rewards to solicit sexual favours.(3)

The tripartite model overlaps the traditional legal distinction between quid pro quo SH and poisoned environment. The former corresponds to sexual coercion and the latter, to gender harassment and unwanted sexual attention. A problem with this legal distinction is that it helps perpetuate the common view that poisoned environment is less serious than quid pro quo SH. One Supreme Court Justice in Canada has expressed similar concerns over the distinction (Law Society of Upper Canada, 1991).(4)

Effects of and Responses to Workplace Sexual Harassment

Victims of workplace SH experience a range of ill effects, such as job dissatisfaction and absenteeism (Fitzgerald et al., 1997; Kauppinen-Toropainen and Gruber, 1993; Schneider, Swan and Fitzgerald, 1997). Victims also exhibit nervousness, anger and irritability (Loy and Stewart, 1984), low self-esteem and elevated stress (Kauppinen-Toropainen and Gruber, 1993). In their research, Thacker and Gohmann (1996) found that the worst effects were associated with supervisor SH, sexual coercion, long term SH and SH in male dominated settings. Thacker and Gohmann (1996) draw upon several theories to explain these findings. They suggest that organizational power theory can explain why employees were affected more negatively by SH perpetrated by superiors. This theory focusses on how workplace hierarchies facilitate harassment of subordinates by their superiors. Employees may be more negatively affected by SH perpetrated by superiors because these perpetrators have the authority to make decisions affecting their subordinates' work lives (e.g., salary decisions). Thacker and Gohmann (1996) suggest that the contact theory, which describes the negative effects of "sexualized" work environments, explains why victims in male dominated work settings suffered more ill effects. They use personal control theory to explain the positive relationship between the duration of SH and worse feelings; as time passes and attempts to control the situation fail, a target of SH feels worse. Finally, Thacker and Gohmann (1996) maintain that sexual coercion has the worst effects because among forms of sexual attention it is most clearly recognized as SH. …

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