Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Not Taking It Any More: Women Who Report or File Complaints of Sexual Harassment

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Not Taking It Any More: Women Who Report or File Complaints of Sexual Harassment

Article excerpt

Research from the early 1980s to the present has found consistently that women who have experienced sexual harassment (SH) infrequently confront the harasser or report the behaviour to someone in a position of authority. The number of women who file a grievance or complaint is even smaller. A variety of studies which together cover a wide range of occupations and work environments reveal a pattern: while approximately half of all working women experience SH, less than a quarter report it to an authority and fewer than one in ten file a formal grievance (Fitzgerald et al., 1995; Gruber and Smith, 1995). Reporting to an authority ranges from 14% among U.S. federal employees (USMSPB, 1981), and residents of Los Angeles, to 24% among U.S. navy personnel. Often studies do not separate "filing a grievance" from the more general act of "reporting" but when they do, filers are a distinct subset of reporters. For example, only 3% of federal women and 8% of navy women indicated that they had filed grievances. Other research finds similarly low rates of filing among samples of women: 2-3% of college students (Cochran et al., 1997; Fitzgerald et al., 1988); 2% of protective service employees in Los Angeles (LA Commission on the Status of Women, 1992); and 10% of military personnel (Martindale, 1990). Fitzgerald and her colleagues (1995) find that seeking organizational relief (informing a supervisor, lodging a formal grievance, filing a lawsuit) is a strategy of last resort used only after other coping methods (e.g., avoiding, confronting the harasser) have failed.

Women's Responses to Sexual Harassment

Women who are targeted for SH differ from others in terms of personal characteristics and work and organizational factors (Gruber and Bjorn, 1982; Gutek, 1985; CHRC, 1983). As well, targets who use more assertive coping strategies differ from their less assertive counterparts in terms of personal vulnerability and the organizational and situational context of the harassment. Who is likely to respond assertively by reporting to an internal organizational authority or filing an external complaint as well as the effect of these assertive strategies on harassment targets is the focus of our research.

Personal Vulnerability

Many women feel embarrassed or humiliated because of harassment; some blame themselves (Gutek, 1985). Women with low self-esteem or locus of control (Gruber and Bjorn, 1986) or who endorse traditional gender-role beliefs (Brooks and Perot, 1991; Fitzgerald et al., 1988) generally respond less assertively to SH. Also, targets who do not define their treatment as SH (Fitzgerald et al., 1988), are generally more tolerant of SH (Cochran et al., 1997), or do not believe that SH is about power (Gruber and Smith, 1995) are less apt to confront or report the botherers.

The effect of sociocultural variables (Fitzgerald et al., 1997, refer to these as personal vulnerability) are mixed. Age, marital status, education do not consistently predict differences in women's assertiveness in handling SH (Gruber and Bjorn, 1986; Ragins and Scandura, 1995). The inconsistent results may be the result of a confluence of two distinct patterns: older women tend to have more organizational resources such as seniority or status which is likely to increase their assertiveness; but younger women are often targeted for more severe and frequent SH which in turn prompts them to be more assertive (Gruber and Bjorn, 1986).

Organizational and Situational Contexts

A combination of objective organizational and situational factors, and women's attitudes towards or perceptions of these factors, account largely for women's handling of SH.

Job and Organizational Contextual Factors

Characteristics of the job and the work environment are significant predictors of SH. Women who are frequently targeted for severe or pervasive SH are generally the same ones who use nonassertive methods of handling SH. …

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