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How Would You React To Sexual Harassment?

A new study suggests most people think they'd fight back hard — and that colors their view of actual harassment victims.

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Think about the following scenario, which takes place at a university:

"A female student named Karen was being interviewed for a research assistant position on campus. She was being interviewed by a male (age 32) in an office on campus. During the course of the interview, the male interviewer asked Karen the following questions:

1. Do you have a boyfriend?

2. Do people find you desirable?

3. Do you think it is important for women to wear

bras to work?"

What would you have done if you were Karen? Now say she answered all the questions and didn't object — what do you think of her as a person? Would you recommend her for the job?

Now think about a time when someone did or said something intimidating to you at work, and you didn't do anything about it. How do you feel about Karen now?

The above is a combination of several experiments business ethicist Kristina Diekmann and her coauthors conducted to find out how people judge victims of sexual harassment. When they asked female undergrads how they'd act in Karen's situation, most of the women said they'd be much more confrontational — 30 said they would tell the interviewer his questions were inappropriate, and 4 said they'd get up and leave. And the more confrontational a woman felt she'd be in the same situation, the lower an opinion she had of Karen.

But the study authors cite previous research showing that most victims of sexual harassment actually respond like Karen — they do nothing. Unfortunately, there are lots of reasons it's difficult to confront or report a harasser — for instance, someone in Karen's position might really need that job.

And study participants appreciated this difficulty when they were asked to think about their own lives. When subjects were asked to think about an intimidating situation where they didn't act (it didn't have to be an instance of sexual harassment), they evaluated Karen much more positively than did other subjects who hadn't been asked to think about their own past. As soon as people were asked to reflect on how hard it can actually be to confront someone, they became a lot more sympathetic.

When women (and men) come forward about sexual harassment, they're often met with disbelief and condemnation. If they were really harassed, wouldn't they have done something about it? Unfortunately, the answer is often no. And the study authors note that helping people realize that fact may make them more likely to empathize with harassment victims — and maybe more likely to step in and stop the harassment themselves.

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