In Brief

In a recent study of sexual harassment cases, researchers found that workers who are skeptical of harassment claims become more sympathetic when they take the complainant's point of view.

The study, published in the February issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 85, No. 1), involved 100 men and 100 women who were asked to evaluate two different cases of sexual harassment. They viewed videotapes of simulated interviews with women who had filed harassment complaints, the alleged harassers and others. They also completed Glick and Fiske's (1996) Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, which measures hostile and benevolent forms of sexism.

Participants were asked to evaluate the complainants' cases using either of two different harassment standards. One was the reasonable person standard, which is objective and gender neutral, taking the point of view of neither a woman nor a man. The other was the reasonable woman standard, which is gender specific, taking the point of view of a woman exposed to harassment.

The researchers, Richard Wiener, PhD, and Linda Hurt, PhD, of St. Louis University, found that those participants assigned to the reasonable woman standard were more likely to find unwelcome social sexual conduct that is severe and pervasive to be harassing, especially those who had measured high in hostile sexism before evaluating the harassment cases. This was true for both men and women.

"Generally, men still find less sexual harassment," Wiener says. However, men and women who view cases from the perspective of women feel more empathy toward female victims and are more likely to believe that harassment did occur. It seems that the reasonable woman standard produces greater sensitivity to offensive behavior than does the reasonable person standard, says Wiener.

To lessen sexual harassment, Wiener suggests conduct training that avoids a simple list of what is and is not acceptable behavior, but instead focuses on the principles involved and how to apply them, and how to view things from the other person's perspective.