A Woman’s Appearance Impacts Their Perceived Credibility on Sexual Harassment Claims

A new study by researchers at Colby College in Maine, Princeton University in New Jersey, and the University of Washington finds that women who are young, “conventionally attractive” and appear and act feminine are more likely to be believed when making accusations of sexual harassment than other women. Thus women who don’t fit the prototype potentially face greater hurdles when trying to convince a workplace or court that they have been harassed. The research also showed that women outside of those socially determined norms — or “nonprototypical” women — are more likely perceived as not being harmed by harassment.

In a study with 4,000 individuals, participants were asked to determine whether a scenario constituted harassment, to what degree a victim was harmed, and whether the potential perpetrator deserved punishment. Participants were presented with digital headshots, in some cases manipulated to look more masculine or feminine, and were asked to choose, for example, which image best represented the woman in the scenario they read about.

The overall results were clear: Participants generally perceived sexual harassment victims to be prototypical women. In fact, the association between sexual harassment and prototypical women is so strong that the exact same woman was seen as more prototypical when people were told she was sexually harassed. In consequence, the exact same scenarios, presented with nonprototypical women, were less likely to be considered harassment

“The consequences of that are very severe for women who fall outside of the narrow representation of who a victim is,” said Bryn Bandt-Law, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Washington and one of the study’s lead authors. “Nonprototypical women are neglected in ways that could contribute to them having discriminatory treatment under the law; people think they’re less credible — and less harmed — when they make a claim, and think their perpetrators deserve less punishment.”

The full study, Narrow Prototypes and Neglected Victims: Understanding Perceptions of Sexual Harassment,” was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/StudySexual Assault/Harassment


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