African American women are just as likely to report sexual harassment in the workplace as they were two decades ago, while white women saw a steady decline in harassment claims, according to a new study led by a Montclair State sociology professor.
“When you lump all women together it looks like there is a decrease in sexual harassment, but when you break it down by race, it is not declining in African American women,” says Yasemin Besen-Cassino, PhD, professor of sociology, Montclair State University, and the author of The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap.
Besen-Cassino theorized that as sexual harassment is considered an expression of power, African American women, who, in general, have less power in society, are more likely to be targets of harassment. Because of societal pressures, men may have become more careful about whom they target. Besen-Cassino found that men not only targeted African American women, but also targeted older women, who also may be perceived as less powerful.
It was while researching her current book about men and masculinity that Besen-Cassino decided to pursue this study on broader “macro” causes of sexual harassment. She and her husband, Dan Cassino, a co-author of the study, had uncovered evidence that as men lost their jobs during the Recession or other downturns in the economy, they would do less housework and contribute less to the home. “We wanted to see what else happened when they lose their jobs,” she says.
Their latest study, published in the journal Gender, Work and Organization, found a more than 70 percent decrease of sexual harassment claims for white women between 1996 and 2016, but only a 38 percent decrease for African American women, with most of that decline happening in the mid-1990s.
They also found other striking associations. As the unemployment rate rose, so did the number of sexual harassment claims by women. In fact, every single point increase in the unemployment rate lead to a five to six-point increase in the number of reported sexual harassment cases.
This fits into other research about the root causes of sexual harassment. “When men lose a relative advantage over women, or loss of status, it is a threat to their dominance and gender identity, leading them to need to assert their dominance in the form of sexual harassment,” says Besen-Cassino.
The research is important in understanding macro factors, such as unemployment rates, that influence the rate of harassment, she says. “Rather than look at the cultures of a particular workplace, we can look at bigger factors and what’s happening on a larger scale,” says Besen-Cassino, adding, “I think it’s important for corporations to understand these factors and dynamics, so that as a society, we can help these women.”