Psychology prof says sexual coercion is not most common form of sexual harassment

Although sexual coercion is the most talked-about form of sexual harassment, it’s not the most common form, Dr. Lilia Cortina told about 100 people at a presentation sponsored by Advance at UNM and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in March.

Dr. Lilia Cortina discusses sexual harassment on March 2. She emphasized that sexual coercion is the least common form of sexual harassment. Sarah East/Advance at UNM.

“The most prototypical kind of sexual harassment that people immediately think of…is the rarest form of sexual harassment,” Cortina said. “It’s the most stereotypical but it’s the most rare,” said Cortina, a professor of psychology and women’s studies and management at the University of Michigan, who defined sexual harassment as “behavior that derogates, demeans or humiliates and individual based on that individual’s sex.”

Cortina, who also is the associate director of the Advance program at Michigan, broke down the bigger issue of sexual harassment into three categories – sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention, and gender harassment. Sexual coercion is when there is an implied better treatment, raise, etc. when an employee is sexually cooperative. Unwanted sexual attention occurs when someone continues to pursue an individual romantically despite repeated attempts to discourage such advances.

Gender harassment includes sexist or crude remarks made to disparage someone based on their gender. She gave a few examples of such remarks.

“Women don’t belong in science, men don’t belong in nursing,” Cortina said.

Cortina emphasized that men can be sexually harassed as well, and that the perpetrators are often other men. Many of the forms of harassment that men face liken them to women and criticize them for being too “feminine.”

“Men face forms of gender harassment…which amount to insults to their masculinity or insults for failing to living up to traditional heterosexual masculine ideas,” she said.

Gender harassment is the most common form of sexual harassment. In one survey, 34.3 percent of women employees had experienced gender harassment by their coworkers or supervisors at a large public university. 37.4 percent had not been harassed, and 4 percent of had experienced all three forms of sexual harassment, including sexual coercion.

Around 100 people attended Cortina’s talk on sexual harassment in the workplace. They learned gender harassment is the most common form of sexual harassment. Sarah East/Advance at UNM.

One study found that gender harassment has at least as great, if not greater, impact on a person’s professional, physical and mental wellbeing as unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion, Cortina said. Gender harassment should not be seen as a lesser form of sexual harassment, but instead one that is very dangerous to employee wellbeing.

According to Cortina, one major risk factor for facing sexual harassment is being female or feminine. Additionally, being a sexual minority also increases the risk factor.

“Whenever we are able to ask sexual orientation, we always find a whopping disparity in what straight employees get targeted with versus gay, lesbian and bisexual identified employees,” Cortina said.

Workplaces that have sexual harassment problems often have other harassment problems as well, Cortina said. There is a strong correlation between sexual harassment and incivility, racial and ethnic harassment, and heterosexist harassment.

“They all kind of go together,” Cortina said. “When there is one form of abuse, you will often find the others.”

Experiencing sexual harassment can lead to a slew of negative consequences for the employee, ranging from job dissatisfaction and team conflict to anxiety, depression and sleep problems. These consequences do no arise from other stressors, other parts of the employee’s job, the employee’s personality, and other demographics, Cortina said.

“All the studies are converging on the same conclusion that these kind of outcomes aren’t explained by a variety of controls across a variety of studies,” she said.

As for solutions, Cortina stressed that workplaces should emphasize reporting less. While it is an important mechanism, no real change can be brought through such a system. There needs to be movement away from policies and procedures, as well as penalties for the most sexualized, coercive, and rare forms of sexual harassment.

Cortina talks with attendees after her presentation. She wants a culture of respect to counter harassment. Sarah East/Advance at UNM.

“A lot of the focus on a lot of policies is unwanted sexual pursuit,” Cortina said. “We need to move away from the overemphasis of sexual pursuit as the quintessential sexual harassment.”

Cortina suggested a culture of respect to best counter harassment. She proposed implementing anti-harassment ideas while promoting respect and civility at the same time.

“Emphasize that discrimination is not just about using nasty name calling and racial epithets,” Cortina said. “It’s also very subtle behaviors.”

Cortina believes that sexual harassment can be stopped by not dismissing little actions.

“Taking the small things more seriously is an idea that I’ve been promoting to try to undermine that foundation…that’s propping up sexual harassment.”

See Dr. Cortina’s slides below:
2018 CORTINA TALK ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT for distribution