Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science

Response of Female Undergraduates to Scenarios of Sexual Harassment by Male Professors and Teaching Assistants

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science

Response of Female Undergraduates to Scenarios of Sexual Harassment by Male Professors and Teaching Assistants

Article excerpt


This study sought to identify some of the factors that lead to assertive responding to sexual harassment. Responses of 120 female undergraduates to hypothetical scenarios of sexual harassment by male professors or teaching assistants were investigated. Two situational variables (ambiguity of the behaviour and harasser status) and one individual difference variable (coping style) were examined. Participants completed a coping inventory and a questionnaire containing 1 of 4 harassment scenarios, with measures of affect, perceptions of the instructor, acknowledgment of the behaviour as sexual harassment, and behavioural responses at two stages. Less ambiguous harassment situations were associated with greater negative affect, acknowledgment of sexual harassment, and more assertive responding. Coping style, but not harasser status, was also related to response strategies.


Le but de cette etude etait d'identifier certains facteurs menant A une attitude assertive face au harcelement sexuel. On a etudie les reponses donnees par 120 etudiantes du ler cycle a des scenarios fictifs de harcelement sexuel mettant en scene des professeurs de sexe masculin ou des assistants a l'enseignement. Deux variables Bees a la situation (ambiguite du comportement et statut du harceleur) et une variable liee aux differences individuelles (style d'adaptation) ont ete examinees. Les participantes ont repondu a un inventaire d'adaptation et rempli un questionnaire comprenant un des quatre scenarios de harcelement, qui ont permis de mesurer l'affect, les perceptions du professeur, l'identification du comportement comme etant du harcelement sexuel, et les reactions comportementales, en deux temps distincts. Les situations presentant une faible ambiguite quant au comportement etaient liees i un affect negatif important, a la reconnaissance du harcelement sexuel et a une reaction assertive marquee. Le style d'adaptation, mais non pas le statut du harceleur, a pu etre associe aux strategies de reaction.

The problem of sexual harassment within academic settings has been identified and examined in a number of psychological studies. Although contrapower harassment (harassment of superiors within an organization by subordinates, such as a student harassing a professor) is possible (Fitzgerald, Weitzman, Gold, & Ormerod, 1988; Matchen & DeSouza, 2000), it is more often the case that higher-ranking individuals use their position of power to obtain sexual favours from lower-ranking individuals, rather than the other way around. According to Dziech and Weiner (1984), between 20 and 30% of women are subjected to some form of sexual harassment by a professor during their university career. The existence of sexual harassment in academia, and the seriousness of its consequences, interferes with the educational and career-building pursuits of women. Even harassment that is infrequent or apparently innocuous can have serious negative effects on victims' psychological well-being (Schneider, Swan, & Fitzgerald, 1997). Moreover, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and is prohibited by law. Even so, such behaviour persists, and victims often do little to end the harassment.

The main focus of this research is on the behavioural responses of victims of sexual harassment. How victims react may depend on how they think and feel about what has happened to them, but it is their actions that can have the greatest effect on both the outcome of individual cases as well as on the general problem of this type of discrimination for other women. A wide range of behaviours may follow a sexually harassing incident, from ignoring the incident to lodging a formal complaint. Although recent evidence indicates that responses to sexual harassment are becoming more direct in some situations (e.g., confronting the harasser, Gruber & Smith, 1995; Yoder & Aniakudo, 1995), formal complaints are still relatively rare (Brooks & Perot, 1991). …

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