Like clockwork, as one workplace sexual harassment scandal fades from the news, another story emerges to take its place. The contours are generally the same: a powerful man, whether it’s at Uber, at Fox News or in Hollywood, sexually harasses his colleagues for decades and faces no real repercussions until his behavior makes the headlines.
The steady drumbeat of these stories might suggest that sexual harassers share some key characteristics — for instance, that they’re older, powerful and usually white. But outside of the handful of high-profile cases that make their way into the media, we know relatively little about the profile of people who perpetrate sexual harassment in the workplace. Researchers agree that most sexual harassment is committed by men and that it’s widely underreported, but beyond that, almost everything we know about who commits sexual harassment — and why — is gleaned from data about victims, not perpetrators. That’s because it’s very difficult to compile accurate information about who commits sexual harassment.
“We’re limited in the data and information that’s available about perpetrators,” said Amy Blackstone, a professor of sociology at the University of Maine. “That makes it more difficult to name and explain patterns of sexual harassment, because we’re missing information about who instigates this behavior and why.”
The first challenge is that many harassers don’t see their actions as harassment, which makes them hard to identify and survey. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released in 2011 found that one in four women and one in 10 men say they’ve been sexually harassed at work, but only 10 percent of men reported that they’ve said or done things that might be construed as sexual harassment. “To do research on harassers, you need people who will say, ‘Yes, this is something that I’ve done,’” Blackstone said. “If harassers don’t recognize their actions as harassment, that’s not possible.”
In some cases, researchers have gotten creative in their attempts to figure out how and why men commit sexual harassment. A 2003 article looked at legal arbitration documents to find patterns in harassers’ behavior. Another team of researchers used a computer program to test whether people would be more or less likely to commit harassment under certain conditions.
Those studies, however, focused on identifying different types of harassment or triggers for harassing behavior — not figuring out what the perpetrators have in common, which is even more complicated. Some researchers have recently tried to identify perpetrators of sexual violence in surveys by asking about specific behaviors that meet the legal definition of assault or rape rather than asking a broader question like, “Have you ever committed sexual assault?”
But this method probably wouldn’t work for pinpointing people who commit sexual harassment, according to Blackstone and others, because the legal definition of harassment1 typically relies on a pattern of behavior, rather than just one incident unless the incident is “severe.” Therefore, a person who acknowledges that they once asked an inappropriate question about a coworker’s sex life or made a crude joke in the break room cannot necessarily be established as a harasser based on that admission alone.
Quid pro quo harassment, where one employee promises a benefit to another in exchange for a sexual favor or threatens reprisal in the workplace if rejected, is an exception to the pattern-of-behavior problem in that it’s easy to identify after just one incident. But it’s more common for harassment to take the form of a hostile work environment, which is built over time through a series of actions that might seem relatively harmless on their own but become harassing or intimidating in the aggregate. “The cumulative aspect is hard to measure,” Blackstone said. “In many cases of harassment, smaller incidents add up over time. That’s hard to target on a survey.”
It’s also hard to find out whether harassers share common attributes like age, marital status, level of education, industry or position in the work hierarchy. While a widely accepted theory holds that harassment is fundamentally about exerting power, that doesn’t mean that harassers all occupy prominent positions in their organization’s hierarchy and their victims are all low-ranking — even people in supervisory roles can be targets. And the problem is not restricted to historically male-dominated industries; the manufacturing, health care and retail industries all accounted for similar percentages of the sex-based discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year.
The degree to which the environment contributes to incidents of harassment also makes it difficult to compile a profile of perpetrators. “Some people are more hostile, more authoritarian, more sexist, and that might make them more prone to harassment, but it’s the workplace culture that makes their behavior acceptable,” said Afroditi Pina, a forensic psychologist at the University of Kent in England who has studied sexual harassment. “And in a culture where harassment is tolerated and that’s just what everyone does, you don’t have to have those characteristics to become a harasser.”
A workplace culture that normalizes harassment and demeaning behavior toward women encourages such behavior to flourish, she said. A study from the 1990s found that in situations where women were treated professionally, men who otherwise expressed a willingness to harass women were less likely to make sexual innuendos to or make physical contact with female experiment participants than they were in situations where they witnessed a male experimenter behaving in a harassing way. “Being able to speak up and stop an offensive behavior before it escalates is a really important variable here,” Pina said.
The prevalence of the confidentiality agreements that some perpetrators and victims sign as part of out-of-court settlements also contributes to the lack of data about sexual harassers. In these situations, the details about the case remain secret and the harasser may even be allowed to continue working in the same job. Private settlements also make it difficult to discern whether a workplace has a positive or negative climate and can send the message to others at the organization that sexual harassment is quietly tolerated, said Heather McLaughlin, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University.
Pina argued that since the workplace environment is so important in determining whether sexual harassment occurs, searching for characteristics that harassers have in common is mostly a distraction. “The thing we can really control is the culture,” she said.
But other experts maintain that there needs to be more data and research on perpetrators of sexual harassment, because relying almost entirely on victims’ accounts doesn’t shed as much light on perpetrators’ motives or patterns.
And having more information can be particularly important in helping identify and prevent harassment. According to McLaughlin, companies themselves need to be more transparent about problematic behavior. Confidential settlements, for instance, can make it difficult for women to feel that they can or should report harassment, she said. “It helps women to know if there’s a history with a particular individual so they don’t feel like they’re overreacting or imagining things,” she said. “Understanding who perpetrates harassment can help women see that this behavior they’re experiencing is part of a larger pattern — and that it’s not just them.”