Men, Women Have Varying Views of Sex Harassment

June 11, 2002 ( - Dealing with workplace sexual harassment allegations may be more complex than it seems, since women and men evaluate such situations differently, a new study found.

Bowling Green State University researchers found that women believe workplace sexual situations involving a man making overtures to a woman are more serious than if a man approaches another man, according to a Reuters news report.

In the Ohio university’s study, author Anne Gordon and her colleagues distributed anonymous questionnaires to over 1,900 employees at a Midwestern company.

The questionnaires described scenarios with ambiguous sexual undertones that occurred in the workplace. In one scenario, for example, one person tells another “You look very attractive in that suit. You should wear it more often.”

Hands on the Knee

In another scenario, the person says the same thing, but puts his or her arm around the colleague’s shoulder. In the final, most serious situation, the person repeats the same sentences, but this time, places a hand on the co-worker’s knee.

The investigators varied the scenarios so that they included two men, two women, or a woman and a man. They also varied the nature of the relationship so that it would involve both two peers and a boss with a subordinate.

The results indicated that men and women indicated they interpreted the hand-on-the-knee scenario as the most blatantly sexual, but men were most concerned when a man appeared to be coming on to another man.

Gordon told Reuters that she suspected these trends might reflect a certain amount of homophobia on the part of the study participants.

Men were most disturbed by the situation involving two men, and as the scenarios escalate towards more contact, the seriousness of the male-male scenario increases relative to others, according to the study.

When considering male victims, “for male participants, as you move from no contact, to minimal contact, to moderate contact, the difference between whether it’s a female or male perpetrator gets larger,” Gordon said.