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Survey Suggests #MeToo Movement Reduced Sexual Harassment but Not Gender Hostility

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Two years ago, a tweet by actress Alyssa Milano with the hashtag #MeToo set off a landslide of women sharing their experiences of sexual abuse and harassment. As the #MeToo movement gained steam, prominent men in positions of power were toppled by public accusations. But did the movement change behavior? Is sexual harassment less prevalent than it used to be?

A recent survey of five hundred women suggests that the answer is yes … and no. Some types of harassment appear to have declined, while others have surged.

Stephanie Johnson is an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado Boulder's Leeds School of Business and co-author of that recent study measuring the impact of the #MeToo movement.

Her work compares surveys that occurred in 2016 and in 2018 regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. What her 2016 study found – which was done before the #MeToo movement – was that many women mentioned sexual harassment as of part of their workplace experience.

In fact, according to that survey, 80% of the women said they were sexually harassed.

The survey was given to women in the United States who worked full time and who were between the ages of 20 and 40. Johnson and her team looked at their survey questions in three ways. The first is unwanted sexual attention like comments or leering. The second was measured sexual coercion, like being offered with favors or threatened with punishment for not complying with sexual favors. 

The third is what they call gender harassment, it’s still part of the concept of sexual harassment but it’s not overtly sexual in nature, "so it might be negative comments like 'this woman is incompetent' or 'women can’t get the job done,'" Johnson said.

Following the rise of the #MeToo Movement, they repeated the survey in 2018 and saw quite a few changes:

In 2016, 66% of women said they experienced unwanted sexual attention, compared with 25% in 2018.

In 2016, 25% of women said they experienced sexual coercion compared with 16% in 2018.

Though, when comparing the question of hostility based on sex, the numbers increased: they went from 76% in 2016, to 93% in 2018.

Drawing from her data, there are hints to why this is occurring. Johnson said that women spoke about an increase in gender harassment as a sort of backlash effect.

“Women pushing more for equality is causing some men who might have been prone to sexually harass them - in terms of sexual coercion or unwanted sexual attention - to stop those behaviors, but instead have this general hostility towards them,” Johnson said.

She added, “I think there is this increased tension that a lot of people feel in the workplace, men who talk about being afraid of being falsely accused of sexual harassment, and women who feel like men are less likely to mentor them and go to workplace dinners with them.”

While tension is higher and hostility based on sex is as well, study participants noted that feelings of lower self-esteem and self-doubts actually decreased. So even for women who were still experiencing sexual harassment, "they seemed to blame themselves less in a way or didn’t let it effect them as much."

After the #MeToo movement, participants who dealt with harassment felt more supported because people were talking about it.


Web content created by Liz Lerner.

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Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.