WEDNESDAY, Aug. 12, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Surprising new research shows that female supervisors are more likely to be the targets of sexual harassment than women in lower-level positions.
Men who described themselves as having more feminine qualities or who were assumed by their co-workers to be gay were also among those most likely to be harassed, according to the study, which was scheduled to be presented this week at the American Sociological Association annual meeting, in San Francisco.
The findings call into question stereotypes about which women are most at risk of harassment, said study author Heather McLaughlin, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota.
When sexual harassment was first exposed as a workplace issue in the 1970s, the assumption was that women in lower positions, who were more economically vulnerable and had fewer options for walking away, were most at risk of being harassed.
"You assume people with less power are less likely to tell on people with more power, because they are more dependent on keeping the job," McLaughlin said. "But we found women who had more workplace power, who did supervise others, were more likely to be sexually harassed."
The study, sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is one of the largest and most detailed looks at who faces sexual harassment in the workplace.
Researchers used data on nearly 600 men and women aged 29 and 30 who took part in the 2003 and 2004 Youth Development Study, a prospective study of adolescents that began in 1988 when participants were in the ninth grade in St. Paul, Minn., public schools. The data also included in-depth interviews with 33 participants.
About 36 percent of men and women had experienced some form of sexual harassment in 2004, including offensive material, discussions of sex, staring or leering, invasion of personal space, questions about one's private life or unwanted touching.
About 46 percent of female supervisors and 33 percent of women who didn't supervise others had experienced sexual harassment. According to one statistical model, women who supervised others were 137 percent more likely to be harassed, the researchers said.
Non-immigrants were also 2.8 times more likely to be sexually harassed than those born outside the United States, the study authors noted.
Participants worked in a variety of professions, including professional, technical and service industries.
"We found this paradox," McLaughlin said. "You would expect supervisory status to protect women from harassment, like inappropriate touching or a sexual gaze from others, but in our study women supervisors were more likely to be harassed."
Supervisors and effeminate men were also at greater risk of experiencing more severe or multiple forms of sexual harassment. Men and women who reported being labeled as non-heterosexual by others or who self-identified as being gay, lesbian, bisexual or unsure were nearly twice as likely to experience harassment.
Men were most often the perpetrators, both against women and against other males. While holding a managerial position increased the likelihood of harassment for women, it did not increase a man's risk.
"Men are using harassment as a workplace equalizer, to strip women in these positions of their power, prestige in the workplace," McLaughlin said. "Harassment isn't about sexual desire or wanting to establish a romantic relationship, but more about control and domination."
Sexual harassment can have severe health effects, including anxiety and depression.
Vincent Roscigno, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University, called the study "cutting-edge."
"They couple rigorous statistical analyses with in-depth interview material," Roscigno said. "This gives us the sense of what concretely is happening in these workplaces."
As in this study, previous research has shown that women in traditionally male-dominated fields are more likely be to harassed.
"It seems that these men are using sexual harassment as a way to put her in her place, make her feel uncomfortable, undermine her authority and sexualize her," Roscigno said. "Sex harassment seems to be a way that males in these environments level the power differential."
So what can be done about it?
McLaughlin recommends increasing and improving anti-sexual harassment education programs, which are sometimes not taken seriously by workers.
"A lot of times, they're perceived as kind of a joke and companies are doing this just to cover themselves from liability," she said. "It's important for companies to send the message that this is important."
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has more on sexual harassment.