In Brief

Desire or dominance? Which is really on the mind of men who sexually harass women? Traditional theories say desire, but it's more about establishing dominance over women who breach feminine ideals, says psychologist Jennifer L. Berdahl, PhD, in a recent article published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 93, No. 2).

In three studies, Berdahl, a management professor at the University of Toronto, found that women who have more "masculine" personality traits experience the most sexual harassment.

"It's really a mechanism for making people who have crossed a line go back on the other side," she explains.

In the first study, Berdahl established "personality gender" by giving 175 students the short form of the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), a survey listing 10 characteristics considered more desirable for men in our society, 10 characteristics more desirable for women and 10 neutral characteristics desirable for either sex. The masculine designations included items such as "assertive," "has leadership abilities," "forceful" and "strong personality." The female characteristics included items such as "gentle," "tender," "warm" and "affectionate." The students indicated how often they displayed each characteristic, then answered questions about how often they had experienced such forms of harassment as sexist comments or jokes, attempts to establish a romantic or sexual relationship despite their attempts to discourage it, and poor treatment because they refused to have sexual relations.

Women who scored highest on "masculine" traits were one and a half times more likely to have experienced harassment than those who scored low.

To address the possibility that masculine-seeming women may be more sensitive to harassment, Berdahl asked participants in a second study to imagine they had just taken a new job and had them rate certain experiences in the new workplace, from very negative to very positive. Women with masculine personality characteristics were not more likely to rate harassing behaviors as negative than other women.

In a third study, 238 employees from five different organizations--three male-dominated manufacturing plants and two female-dominated community service centers--filled out questionnaires about their personality traits and sexual-harassment experiences. All women in the male-dominated occupations and organizations were more likely than those in the female-dominated ones to report harassment. Importantly, those with masculine personality traits in male-dominated organizations were most likely to experience harassment.

"These women crossed the gender line both in terms of occupation and personality," notes Berdahl.

--L. Meyers