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Feminist Activists More Likely To Experience Sexual Harassment At Work

A new study finds that the workplace is often a hostile environment for women engaging in feminist activism.

Posted on April 12, 2013, at 5:01 p.m. ET

Women who engage in visible feminist activism face significantly more sexual harassment than their non-feminist-identifying peers, a new study in Psychology of Women Quarterly has found.

Researchers Kathryn J. Holland and Lilia M. Cortina aimed to link women's experience of sexual harassment in the workplace — an issue they reported as happening to upwards of 58% of women — with professional's women's relationship to feminism. Holland and Cortina hypothesized that female employees who identified as feminists and engaged in feminist activism in the office would be more likely to be harassed by male employees, as those men might feel threatened by a perceived feminist challenge to the status quo.

They also speculated that feminists might report more harassment because they would be more likely than other women to label harassing experiences under the term "sexual harassment," rather than thinking of them in other ways.

The study authors asked women whether or not they'd experienced a series of sexual or gender-based harassment behaviors — which were identified prior to introduction of the "sexual harassment" term itself, to avoid leading the respondents — then whether or not they'd label themselves as having experienced sexual harassment, and whether or not they self-identified as feminists or participated in feminist activism. They also asked a number of questions about their current job satisfaction.

Contrary to their expectations, researchers found that women who identified as feminists reported less harassment than women who did not identify as feminists; researchers theorized, though, that this might be due to the fact that feminist identity is not as noticeable a trait as they had expected. What mattered was feminist activism: a variable measured by how many items participants checked on a list of potential "activist" activities, like signing a petition, donating money to a feminist cause, or writing a letter to a member of Congress. Indeed, women who reported higher levels of feminist activism reported more harassment than those who said they did not engage in feminist activism in the office.

The study also found that women who identified as feminist reported a greater decrease in job satisfaction, and a higher rate of intended turnover, than those women who did not. Researchers caution that these findings do not suggest that feminist identification makes female employees less happy, but, unfortunately, that feminist presentation in the workplace still contributes to negative outcomes for women.