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Reports of sexual harassment wane at work, possibly thanks to #MeToo

The #MeToo movement is empowering women to speak out against sexual harassment, and it appears to be having an effect.

Acts of sexual harassment toward women in the workplace, as well as the feelings of self-doubt and low self-esteem these acts cause, decreased from 2016 to 2018, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Plos One.

Women reported feeling more support and more emboldened to speak out against sexual harassment, including addressing the harassers directly.

Because the study looked at survey responses before and after the #MeToo movement began in late 2017, the results suggests that the social movement played a role.

“So many people put themselves out there and made themselves vulnerable during the #MeToo movement — and it’s working,” said Stefanie Johnson, an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, who co-authored the study.

Johnson and her colleagues surveyed more than 500 women in the U.S. about their experiences with sexual harassment at work, first in 2016 — before #MeToo — and again 2018. The women were ages 25 to 45, held full-time jobs and had an average of more than 10 years of work experience. The majority were midlevel employees and at least 70 percent were white.

During both surveys, participants were asked whether they had experienced unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion in the workplace. Participants were also asked whether they had experienced gender harassment more broadly, which may not be sexual in nature. (Gender harassment refers to any acts targeting a person because of their gender.) The number of women who reported being solicited for sex acts by someone related to their work dropped by almost 10 percent from 2016 to 2018.

Sexual harassment often makes a victim question whether they’ve earned their position through merit. Indeed, the physical and psychological toll of sexual harassment often triggers feelings of self-doubt, low self-esteem and job withdrawal. But the research showed that the negative toll sexual and gender harassment takes on a woman’s perception of herself is weakening.

“The women talked a lot about having a feeling that they thought they were all alone, that they were the one idiot that allowed herself to be sexually harassed, or that they doubted their ability to perform their jobs,” Johnson said. “When you learn that almost every woman has experienced sexual harassment, then you realize it really has nothing to do with you.”

However, the research did not find this positive effect on self-esteem to be true among women who were subject to sexual coercion, the most egregious form of sexual harassment.

It also found that while acts of sexual harassment appeared to be decreasing, harassment based on sex or gender was on the rise. Johnson credits subconscious backlash.

“We tend to make people feel put in a corner, especially if you saw how the cases played out in the media. No one wants to be that person,” Johnson said. “Gender harassment could be based on a feeling of anger toward women because some men feel like they’re losing something or they’re being accused.”

Semantics could also be at play.

“As certain forms of harassment become widely understood as a ‘no-no,’ it starts manifesting in other ways that people don’t yet recognize as wrong,” said Jennifer Berdahl, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia who was not involved with the research. “The term ‘sexual harassment’ makes people think it’s sexually motivated or sexual in nature but sex-based. Any kind of put-down motivated by the victims’ gender is sex-based harassment.”

Inequality remains

While the study painted a promising picture for middle-to-upper-class white women, more research needs to be done on what increased awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace has done for women of color and queer women.

“One of the things that we know about sexual harassment is that it is influenced by race and by sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Shawn Burn, a psychology professor at California Polytechnic State University.

The Center for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that from 2012 to 2016, black women filed 27 percent of sexual harassment claims to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, despite making up just 7 percent of the workforce.

“If you are a minority, sexual harassment will likely be racially infused. For a queer woman it will likely be infused with heterosexism,” Burn said. “It perpetuates social inequality.”

In social movements like #MeToo, the most powerful members of marginalized groups are typically the ones whose voices are amplified first, Berdahl said. In this case, the most powerful members are often white women.

“For this reason, it could be that women of color are not yet feeling the effects of the #MeToo movement,” Berdahl said. “The research shows that at the very least, a relatively powerful group of women is experiencing positive effects, and that’s a step forward.”

Indeed, the study provided a first look at the impact social movements are having on sex and gender harassment at work, and while sexual harassment in the workplace can not yet be dismissed as a solved issue — especially since the psychological effects can last decades — Berdahl said the results are promising.

“There are myths around sexual harassment — questioning victim reports or defending perpetrators — that help deny anything serious has happened. These myths are coming into question in a way they haven’t before in popular culture.”