#MeToo bias? Younger, attractive women claiming sexual harassment deemed more credible

SEATTLE — Young, attractive women are more likely to be believed when making accusations of sexual harassment, according to recent research. Women who do not fit this “prototype” may face greater hurdles when trying to convince an employer or a court that they have been harassed, the study suggests.

Researchers found a perception among people that women who are young, “conventionally attractive,” and feminine are more likely to be harassed. In contrast, women outside of these socially determined norms are more likely to be perceived as less credible and less harmed by harassment.

“The consequences of that are very severe for women who fall outside of the narrow representation of who a victim is. Non-prototypical 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,” says study lead author Bryn Bandt-Law, a graduate psychology student at the University of Washington, in a university release.

How being a ‘prototypical’ woman can impact sexual harassment beliefs

The researchers conducted eleven different experiments with more than 4,000 people. Participants were asked a series of questions including who they think is being sexually harassed, what constitutes harassment, and how claims of harassment are perceived.

In five of the experiments, participants read scenarios where women either did or did not experience sexual harassment. They then assessed the extent to which these women fit with the idealized image of women, either by drawing what they thought the woman might look like or selecting from a series of photos. Across all the experiments, participants perceived the targets of sexual harassment as more stereotypical than those who did not experience harassment.

The exact same scenarios were less likely to be considered harassment concerning non-prototypical women. Such victims are deemed less credible and less harmed by the harassment, and their harasser is seen as less deserving of punishment.

In the next four experiments, participants were shown ambiguous sexual harassment scenarios, such as a boss inquiring about a woman’s dating life. These scenarios were paired with descriptions or photos of women who were either stereotypical or not. The participants then rated the likelihood that the incident constituted sexual harassment.

When considering a non-stereotypical woman, participants were less likely to label such scenarios as sexual harassment compared to when considering stereotypical women, despite it being the same incident. Some participants were also asked to draw a woman who was harassed, or not harassed, among other tests.

#MeToo study
In one test, study participants were asked to draw a typical woman who would, or would not, be the target of sexual harassment. On the left is a prototypical harassment victim, as depicted by a study participant; on the right is an illustration of a woman who would not be harassed, submitted by another participant. (Image credit: University of Washington Department of Psychology)

Results show participants generally perceived sexual harassment victims to be prototypical women. In fact, the link between sexual harassment and prototypical women appears to be so strong that the same woman was seen as more prototypical when people were told she was sexually harassed.

“This is why the idea of a prototypical woman matters. Sexual harassment most commonly happens to women. If only those women displaying certain characteristics are viewed as ‘women’ then the belief persists that those without prototypical characteristics must not be subject to harassment,” says study senior author Professor Cheryl Kaiser, also of the University of Washington. “When you make a perception of harassment, you also make a connection to womanhood but the way we understand womanhood is very narrowly defined. So for anyone who falls outside of that definition, it makes it hard to make that connection to harassment.”

‘If they’re not being believed, they’re effectively being silenced’

The study was inspired by the #MeToo movement, which became a social phenomenon in 2017 when actresses accused movie producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and abuse. #MeToo and related movements empowered individuals to come forward about their experiences with sexual harassment, but as the study’s authors reflected on the celebrities who stepped forward, they wanted to explore further the notion of credibility.

Researchers say areas that merit further study of harassment prototypes among women are race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Because white women are perceived as prototypical women, the team is currently exploring whether black women are perceived as less credible and less harmed by sexual harassment. Such a finding would be consistent with Tarana Burke’s criticism that the mainstream #MeToo movement has disproportionately centered and benefited a narrow group of women, such as white, conventionally feminine celebrities.

Overall, the team believes the findings help illustrate how laws may not always protect the people they’re designed to. For harassment claims to lead to legal resolution, accusations must be deemed credible, and the incidents harmful. By recognizing that harassment can happen regardless of a person’s fit within a prototype, the chances for justice are improved.

“If we have biased perceptions of harm for non-prototypical women, it will drastically change their legal outcomes. If they’re not being believed, they’re effectively being silenced,” said Ms. Bandt-Law.

The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

SWNS writer Laura Sharman contributed to this report.