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Discriminating Youths UMaine sociologist looks at sexual harassment among teen workers by Kristen Andresen

Historically, most sexual harassment research has centered on mid-career workers, mainly women. That continues to be the case, but as Blackstone says, such a narrow focus only tells part of the story. Through their research, based on survey and interview data from Minnesota’s annual Youth Development Study and the national General Social Survey, Blackstone, Uggen and their team give a broader view of sexual harassment across all ages and both genders.

Because the Youth Development Study has followed the same individuals since it was first administered to 1,010 ninth-graders in 1988, participants have been able to reflect on their experiences. The study started out as a way to measure what impact working nights and weekends had on teens’ school performance and sense of efficacy. Uggen and Blackstone added questions about sexual harassment, and their findings are somewhat surprising.

For example, it’s not just female workers who experience discrimination through sexual harassment. Men do, too, though at lower rates than women. By examining the issue using feminist theories, Blackstone and Uggen maintain that such harassment is a gendered expression of power — one that has more to do with the harasser than the harassee.

“You need to recognize that harassment is less about targeting a particular gender than about elevating a particular expression of gender,” she says. “In our culture, we most value a heteronormal sexual expression. It’s about privileging a particular male expression of gender.”

Blackstone, Uggen and UMaine alumna (and current University of Minnesota graduate student) Heather McLaughlin recently found that women in supervisory positions are more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace than their female co-workers who are not in management. Though this may seem counterintuitive, the researchers maintain that males may see this as a chance to keep women “in their place.”

Another UMaine alum, Jason Houle, now a doctoral candidate at Penn State, recently co-authored a paper based on the Youth Development Study data. Blackstone, Houle and Uggen interviewed 33 participants, who were in their late 20s at the time, to see how their attitudes toward appropriate workplace interactions have changed.

“If you ask five different people, you get five different definitions of harassment,” Blackstone says. “That’s especially true with younger workers. They’re learning what it is to be a worker, and they’re also at the age where they’re more likely to be sociable with their co-workers in a way that people who are married or have kids aren’t. They’re at the age when they’re looking for potential mates.”

Researchers have found that adolescents are exposed to more sexualized interactions in the workplace, in part because they tend to work in service industries, where flirting and other sexual behaviors are more common. That’s not to say that these interactions are necessarily unwelcome. Nor does this mean that the workers automatically consider these behaviors to be harassment — especially at the time.

Laurie, a participant who worked at a restaurant in high school, describes it like this:  “There was some flirting with either busboys or cooks, but it had a much different feel to it [than it would if it happened today]. It was something where both parties were actively pursuing one another, and I think that element, I don’t know if it would be power or appropriateness, it seemed like it was peers, so it had a – it didn’t have a sexual harassment tone or feel to it.”

In Laurie’s case, age — the fact that these were her peers rather than supervisors or more senior workers — made all the difference. And while it may seem like fun at the time, prior studies have shown that adolescent sexual harassment can be a precursor to sexual harassment later in life.

For Nicole, another participant, time gave her a clearer perspective on sexual harassment. When she was in high school, Nicole worked in the outdoor department of a home improvement center. One of her male co-workers snuck up behind her and soaked her T-shirt to the point where that her breasts were exposed. Others made remarks like, “Now that you have a woman out there she can sweep the warehouse and we’ll put curtains up.”

Though she didn’t see it as sexual harassment at the time, Nicole now does.

However, even if they do perceive the actions of their co-workers as sexual harassment, younger workers tend to deal with it differently than more mature employees.

“They may not follow formal channels in terms of reporting it, but that doesn’t mean they do nothing,” Blackstone says. “Somebody could perceive what happened to them as sexual harassment, tell a friend about it and feel like they’ve exercised their legal rights.”

Her research has found that people use a variety of strategies to deal with sexual harassment. Understanding those coping mechanisms is important when it comes to developing more effective training programs in the workplace — a subject that Blackstone plans to explore.

Last summer, Blackstone also launched a Maine-based survey that studies sexual harassment, bullying and age discrimination among workers age 62 and older. Though she is still in the early stages of her research, some of the responses indicate that sexual harassment among older workers is as prevalent as it is among adolescents.

“In our culture, age is a fundamental dimension of power that can make workers at both the very beginning well as those in the later stages of their working lives more vulnerable to harassment,” Blackstone says. “Understanding the experiences of both groups is essential for employers and policy makers interested in maintaining a healthy workforce.”

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Summer 2010

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