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Cheryl Kaiser and co-author Bryn Bandt-Law’s study, on perceptions about sexual harassment of prototypical vs. non-prototypical women, is explored in this UW NEWS article

Sexual harassment claims considered more credible if made by ‘prototypical’ women

Kim Eckart

Women who are young, “conventionally attractive” and appear and act feminine are more likely to be believed when making accusations of sexual harassment, a new University of Washington-led study finds.

That leaves people who don’t fit the prototype potentially facing greater hurdles when trying to convince a workplace or court that they have been harassed.

The study, involving more than 4,000 participants, reveals perceptions that primarily “prototypical” women are likely to be harassed. The research also showed that women outside of those socially determined norms — or “nonprototypical” women — are more likely perceived as not being harmed by harassment.

“The consequences of that are very severe for women who fall outside of the narrow representation of who a victim is,” said Bryn Bandt-Law, a graduate student in psychology at the UW and one of the study’s lead authors. “Nonprototypical women are neglected in ways that could contribute to them having discriminatory treatment under the law; people think they’re less credible — and less harmed — when they make a claim, and think their perpetrators deserve less punishment.”

The study, published Jan. 14 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is co-led by Jin Goh, a former postdoctoral researcher at the UW now at Colby College, and Nathan Cheek of Princeton University. 

The researchers said the idea for the study came from the #MeToo movement, founded by Tarana Burke and popularized in 2017 after a number of actresses accused movie producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and abuse. #MeToo and related movements empowered individuals to come forward about their experiences with sexual harassment, which the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines as gender discrimination and/or unwelcome sexual behavior that can affect a person’s job performance and work environment. The movement also encourages people to name perpetrators and in some cases pursue legal action.

But as the study’s authors reflected on the celebrities who stepped forward, they wanted to explore further the notion of credibility. They set up a series of experiments to be divided among the 4,000 participants to address three research questions: who we think is sexually harassed; what constitutes harassment; and how claims of harassment are perceived. The experiments largely consisted of written scenarios and digitally manipulated headshots...

...To address the research question of who we think is likely to be harassed, some participants were asked to draw a woman who was harassed — or not harassed, depending on the assignment. This approach reveals people’s conceptions and biases at a basic, freeform level, explained senior author and UW psychology professor Cheryl Kaiser. It has been used in other well-known experiments such as “draw a scientist,” which often reveals gender bias.

Read the entire article here.