Looking the other way: how ideology influences perceptions of sexual harassment

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  • 1 Aarhus University, , Denmark
  • | 2 University of Nebraska–Lincoln, , USA
  • | 3 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, , USA
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Little research has systematically examined the relationship between ideology and perceptions of sexual harassment. Recognising differences in the way in which sexual harassment and assault were discussed on political programming and social media by partisans, we posed the following questions: (1) ‘Is there an ideological difference in perceptions of observed sexual harassment?’; and (2) ‘Is there also an ideological difference in perceptions of personally experienced sexual harassment?’ Using data from two studies, we find that conservatives are less likely than liberals to perceive and label both ambiguous and unambiguous situations as sexual harassment. Our third study – a survey of adult women – demonstrates that compared to liberal women, conservative women report significantly fewer instances of personally experienced gender discrimination and sexual harassment than liberal women. These results indicate that both observed and lived experiences of sexual harassment are linked to one’s ideological belief structures.

Abstract

Little research has systematically examined the relationship between ideology and perceptions of sexual harassment. Recognising differences in the way in which sexual harassment and assault were discussed on political programming and social media by partisans, we posed the following questions: (1) ‘Is there an ideological difference in perceptions of observed sexual harassment?’; and (2) ‘Is there also an ideological difference in perceptions of personally experienced sexual harassment?’ Using data from two studies, we find that conservatives are less likely than liberals to perceive and label both ambiguous and unambiguous situations as sexual harassment. Our third study – a survey of adult women – demonstrates that compared to liberal women, conservative women report significantly fewer instances of personally experienced gender discrimination and sexual harassment than liberal women. These results indicate that both observed and lived experiences of sexual harassment are linked to one’s ideological belief structures.

Key messages

  • Conservatives are less likely than liberals to perceive and label both ambiguous and unambiguous workplace scenarios as sexual harassment.

  • Conservative women report significantly fewer instances of sexual harassment and gender discrimination than liberal women.

  • These findings have broad implications for policy support and political attitudes about gender discrimination and harassment.

Introduction

Allegations of sexual misconduct among prominent media figures and politicians have sparked conversations about sexual harassment in the US and across the globe. The phrase ‘Me Too’ has captured the pervasiveness of these experiences. Despite data confirming the ubiquity of sexual harassment, survey data demonstrate that there is no consensus on the importance of sexual harassment as a societal issue, and differences in opinion tend to diverge along ideological and partisan lines in the US. A Pew Research Center report found that roughly 60 per cent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents were concerned about men getting away with sexual harassment in the workplace and women not being believed when they come forward with allegations of sexual harassment. In comparison, 33 per cent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were concerned with men getting away with sexual harassment and 28 per cent were concerned with women not being believed when reporting sexual harassment (Pew Research Center, 2018).

Academic research has likewise demonstrated this ideological asymmetry, stating that conservatives tend to see sexual harassment as a less pressing societal issue, while liberals report greater concern about the prevalence of sexual harassment (van der Linden and Panagopoulos, 2019). However, much of the research on the ideological and partisan asymmetry in perceptions of sexual harassment tends to focus on appraisals of politicians or political candidates embroiled in scandal and how sexual harassment accusations impact evaluations and electoral support from voters. Researchers have found that partisan biases and motivated reasoning drive voters’ evaluations of politicians accused of sexual misconduct (van der Linden and Panagopoulos, 2019; Costa et al, 2020).

There is ample literature on how partisans react to financial, corruption, political and sex scandals in terms of electoral consequences and voter attitudes (for a review, see Warren and Barton, 2019). Some of this research has focused specifically on sex scandals. However, sex scandals do not always involve allegations of sexual harassment and assault. More recent work has specifically looked at how sexual harassment scandals impact evaluation and support for political elites (Cossette and Craig, 2019). For example, Costa et al (2020) find partisan bias and evidence of motivated reasoning in how individuals react to sexual harassment allegations. Furthermore, survey data reveal a clear ideological gap in concern about sexual harassment as a societal issue that needs to be reckoned with (Vagianos, 2015; Pew Research Center, 2018). What the extant literature does not examine is ideological differences in perceptions of sexual harassment without the influence of political in-group and out-group dynamics, separate from political scandal. In other words, do liberals and conservatives have vastly different notions of what constitutes sexual harassment in the first place? If these ideological differences do exist, this may explain observable disparities in concern for harassment as a societal problem, views of the #MeToo movement and how harassment is discussed within political and social circles. This disparity could also impact attitudes about what policies should and should not be put in place to address harassment, violence against women and other legislation that protects women in the workplace.

In this article, we seek to answer two questions: ‘Is there an ideological difference in evaluations of observed sexual harassment?’; and ‘Is there an ideological difference in perceptions of personally experienced sexual harassment?’ Using data from three separate studies in the US, we find that a pattern emerges surrounding the way in which individuals perceive interpersonal interactions as sexual harassment, falling along the ideological liberal–conservative divide. This finding holds for both perceptions of observed sexual harassment experienced by someone else and self-reported experiences of sexual harassment. These results suggest that there is a threshold differential in the recognition of what behaviours and interactions constitute sexual harassment, with conservatives having a significantly higher threshold than liberals. Our third study highlights the fact that women are not a monolithic group and even evaluations of personally experienced harassment can be shaped by ideology. Although the US is a particularly polarised context in which the #MeToo movement and issues of sexual harassment have become politicised, our findings may generalise to Anglo-Saxon and Southern European countries that have a similar prevalence of sexual harassment and levels of gender egalitarianism (Nielsen et al, 2009). It is also worth noting that workplace sexual harassment is a global issue (WHO, 2021).

This work contributes to the evolving discussion about how partisanship and ideology shape attitudes on issues of gender equality, and aids in understanding how and why movements like #MeToo have resonated with some individuals and not others. Finally, our findings underscore the notion that women do not universally see sexual harassment as a salient issue that impacts all women. Ideology and partisanship are powerful forces, particularly in US politics, which can even shape perceptions of lived experiences.

Individual differences in experiences and perceptions of sexual harassment

Central to this study is the research on individual differences in experiences and perceptions of sexual harassment. Although anyone, regardless of sex or gender, can be the victim of sexual harassment, women have historically been the most likely demographic to experience harassment. Harassment can take a multitude of forms and can occur in diverse settings. Scholars have documented the ubiquity of sexual harassment in the workplace (Fitzgerald, 1993), sexist comments (Swim et al, 2001) and street harassment (Chatterjee, 2018). Sexual harassment is commonplace and part of the ‘lived experience’ of most women (Swim et al, 2001). Cross-national research finds that sexual harassment is less common in more gender-egalitarian cultures like many Scandinavian countries compared to Southern European countries and the US (Nielsen et al, 2009). Public polls in the US find that the sexual harassment of women is pervasive, with approximately 81 per cent of women experiencing it in their lifetime (Chatterjee, 2018) and one in three women reporting workplace sexual harassment (Vagianos, 2015).

Scholars have identified particular factors that contribute to differential perceptions of sexual harassment, with gender as a prominent factor. Women are more likely than their male counterparts to interpret questionable workplace interactions as sexual harassment (Del Carmen Herrera et al, 2018). Overall, women perceive a broader range of social-sexual behaviours as constituting harassment (Rotundo et al, 2001). Sexist attitudes and attitudes about gender equality also impact perceptions of sexual harassment. Those with more progressive attitudes towards gender equality are more likely to identify and label workplace scenarios as sexual harassment (Uggen and Blackstone, 2004). Those who identify as feminists are more aware of harassment and are more likely to have a lower threshold for perceived harassment (Shi and Zheng, 2020). Other factors that predict perceptions of sexual harassment are prior experiences with harassment (Mazer and Percival, 1989), age (Blackstone et al, 2014) and stable personality traits (Brewer et al, 2019).

Beyond its pervasiveness, a secondary characteristic that makes sexual harassment so pernicious is that it can be relatively subjective. The often private and difficult-to-prove nature of sexual harassment may be one factor that motivates differing opinions about what actually constitutes sexual harassment. The standards and guidelines set forth by governments and institutions are important in providing the foundation for acceptable codes of conduct, but this variation in what individuals believe sexual harassment to be is of great importance, with significant social and policy implications.

Sexual harassment, politics and ideology

Although feminist political theorists have long acknowledged the political nature of sexual harassment and sexual violence, empirical scholars of political science have only recently begun to study the relationship between sexual harassment and different political outcomes. Sexism towards political candidates and its impact on support for policies like gender quotas have largely occupied the focus of the political science research (Bauer, 2015; Cassese and Barnes, 2019; Beauregard and Sheppard, 2021). However, newer work finds that harassment and gender-based marginalisation can impact the political behaviour of citizens as well. For example, Bankert (2020) finds that sexual harassment can motivate political engagement, though there is an ideological gap in which liberal women tend to be more mobilised than conservative women by personally experienced harassment. Hansen and Dolan (2020) find that women who report being sexually harassed at work were also more likely to be mobilised in the context of the 2018 elections.

A wide range of work, particularly on gender and US politics, has considered the impact that perceptions of gender discrimination have on political behaviour and attitudes. For example, despite a dearth of evidence of in-group favouritism when it comes to women’s support for women candidates, concerns about gender discrimination predict support for a woman president (Huddy and Carey, 2009). Gender traditionalism and a denial of gender discrimination have been associated with opposition to prominent women politicians (Sulfaro, 2007; Tesler and Sears, 2010; McThomas and Tesler, 2016). Sexual harassment has also been explored in the candidate emergence literature, particularly with the advent of the #MeToo movement. Many political observers have argued that the #MeToo movement, combined with anger over the former presidency of Donald Trump, motivated increased political participation, particularly among Democratic women, in the form of activism, voting and even running for office (Shugerman, 2018; Dittmar, 2020).

The lopsided impact of the #MeToo movement on political engagement is not particularly surprising considering the partisan gaps in support for the movement (Conroy, 2019). Hansen and Dolan (2020) examine attitudes towards sexual harassment and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault and inappropriate sexual behaviour, to the Supreme Court and find that partisanship is the biggest predictor of these attitudes. Despite how gender salient these issues are, partisanship is the largest influence on political behaviour and gender has little impact. This is consistent with other work which suggests that men and women voters do not react differently to politicians who have been accused of sexual harassment and that the gender gap in concern about sexual harassment and support for #MeToo is dwarfed by the partisan divide (Cossette and Craig, 2019). Despite the conventional wisdom that women tend to be moved more by gender-salient issues (Russell and Trigg, 2004; Lizotte, 2015), gender alone is not always an influential political identity (Cassese and Holman, 2016; Barnes and Cassese, 2017). This is partially due to lower levels of linked fate and group consciousness, that is, a sense that your well-being is inextricably tied to the well-being of the entire group, among women as compared to other historically marginalised groups (Gurin et al, 1980; Henderson-King and Stewart, 1994).

Expectations

The issue of sexual assault and harassment has become a mainstream conversation within US politics. Research has already demonstrated a partisan gap in agreement that sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination are widespread societal issues (Pew Research Center, 2018; van der Linden and Panagopoulos, 2019). However, we know less about any substantive differences in definitions of sexual harassment. Do liberals and conservatives simply have different thresholds for what behaviour constitutes harassment? We posit that given the existing research showing that conservatives are less concerned about sexual harassment in society and less condemnatory of politicians with similar ideologies embroiled in sexual harassment scandals, conservatives will be less likely to label observed interactions in a workplace setting as sexual harassment than liberals (H1). We further hypothesise that not only are conservatives less likely than liberals to label harassment that is directed at others as sexual harassment, but they are also less likely to perceive and label personally experienced harassment as such (H2).

We expect that conservatives will be less likely to identify and label workplace interactions as sexual harassment due to the role of legitimising ideologies. Psychology research has found that conservatives are more likely than liberals to possess beliefs that legitimise and justify relationships in terms of social dominance and hierarchy. For example, conservatives have higher levels of social dominance orientation (SDO) than liberals (Pratto et al, 1994; Van Hiel and Mervielde, 2002). SDO is an individual’s preference for group-based hierarchies. Typically, this involves support for the dominance of some groups over others based on factors like religion, nationality, race and gender, as well as an opposition to equality through prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviours towards low-status or low-power groups (Pratto et al, 1994). Conservatives also tend to hold more system-justifying (SJ) beliefs than liberals (Jost et al, 2003), which involves a motivation to justify the existing social system or hierarchy and resist social change (Jost and Banaji, 1994). Both SDO and SJ are legitimising ideologies that consist of beliefs that justify or legitimate a political or social system, including institutions, social hierarchies and inequalities (Tyler, 2005). Both legitimising ideologies are associated with more tolerance for sexual harassment and assault (Joseph et al, 2013; Szekeres et al, 2020).

Those who think about relationships in terms of dominance, subordination and hierarchies often have discriminatory or prejudiced attitudes. For example, both SDO and system justification are positively related to sexist attitudes (Mosso et al, 2013). Extant research has established that those who hold less egalitarian gender-role attitudes are less likely to label workplace scenarios as sexual harassment (Uggen and Blackstone, 2004). Those with more progressive gender-role attitudes and individuals who identify with feminist ideals have a lower threshold for perceived harassment (Shi and Zheng, 2020). Conservatives tend to espouse traditional gender-role attitudes (Johnson and Tamney, 2001). This, in turn, may lead conservatives to be less likely to identify questionable workplace interactions as sexual harassment.

Based on the literature linking these constructs (SDO, system justification and sexism) to conservatism, we posit that the ideological lens through which people view the world shapes their opinions on sexual harassment, with conservatives being less likely to label observed interactions as sexual harassment than are liberals. All of these constructs are intercorrelated belief systems that can explain individual differences in social and political attitudes. In particular, we argue that conservatives are more motivated than are liberals to see sexual harassment as justified or, at minimum, less unacceptable within the framework of a system where some groups are dominant and others are subordinate.

Our second hypothesis predicts that conservatives will also be less likely to perceive and label personally experienced harassment as such. Indeed, research shows that some women are more reluctant than others to label an event as sexist or as constituting sexual harassment (Magley et al, 1999). Furthermore, we expect that the same legitimising ideologies described earlier, namely, a desire to legitimise the existing social hierarchy, will drive conservative women to report experiencing sexual harassment at lower rates than liberal women. Research on discrimination confirms that an endorsement of ideologies that legitimise group status differences is associated with decreased reports of experiences of personal discrimination (Major et al, 2002).

The extant gender and politics literature demonstrates that women are not a homogeneous group and gender-based concerns do not motivate women universally (Erzeel and Caluwaerts, 2015). Cross-pressures associated with partisan identities, particularly in hyper-polarised contexts like the US, influence women’s political attitudes and behaviour (Hansen et al, 2020). Although studies find that women are less tolerant of sexual harassment than men, we expect that conservative women will see a narrower range of behaviours as constituting sexual harassment than liberal women, even when these behaviours are personally experienced. Existing research also suggests that Republican women engaged in partisan-motivated reasoning when evaluating the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment issues (Bacon, 2018; Castle et al, 2020). We suggest that conservative women engage in this same process of motivated reasoning when reporting their own experiences of sexism and sexual harassment.

Data and methods: Studies 1 and 2

Participants

Participants in the first study were university students enrolled in introductory political science courses at a large Midwestern university between March and April 2018. Students participated in the study in exchange for course credit (n = 245; six were omitted for no response on the dependent variable [DV]). The sample was 54 per cent female and 88.3 per cent white. As perceptions of what is and is not sexual harassment may be generational (see Blackstone et al, 2014) and the mean age of the student sample was 19.7, we opted to replicate Study 1 using an online adult convenience sample, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (AMT). Online convenience samples, like AMT, tend to be more representative than student samples (Berinsky et al, 2012). The data for Study 2 were obtained on 8 August 2018 (n = 505; data from two participants were omitted because they lacked scores on the DV). Study 2 participants were compensated US$0.50 for completing the 10- to 15-minute survey. The sample was 43 per cent female and 79.5 per cent white, and the mean age was 34.7. Participants in both studies completed an online survey that measured sexual harassment attitudes, political ideology and demographics.

Materials and procedures

Sexual harassment

Five items from Biber et al’s (2002) sexual harassment scale were used to measure sexual harassment and were selected to reflect the complete range of sexual harassment, from ambiguous (for example, being called ‘sweetheart’) to unambiguous (for example, pressure for sexual favours). For each item, participants were given brief hypothetical scenarios between Jane and her boss, and were asked the degree to which they believed sexual harassment occurred in the hypothetical situation using a five-point scale (1 = ‘No, I do not feel Jane has been sexually harassed’ to 5 = ‘Yes, I feel Jane has been sexually harassed’). The content of the five scenarios used to measure sexual harassment included: addressing Jane as ‘sweetheart’ and ‘honey’ (Study 1: M = 3.11, SD = 1.41; Study 2: M = 3.20, SD = 1.34); Jane’s boss telling sexually stereotyped jokes (Study 1: M = 3.74, SD = 1.34; Study 2: M = 3.70, SD = 1.30); Jane’s boss arguing that women are inferior (Study 1: M = 2.94, SD = 1.54; Study 2: M = 3.04, SD = 1.49); sexually oriented comments about how Jane dresses (Study 1: M = 4.54, SD = 0.85; Study 2: M = 4.33, SD = 0.94); and pressuring Jane for sexual favours (Study 1: M = 4.77, SD = 0.71; Study 2: M = 4.44, SD = 0.97). Workplace scenarios were selected because the workplace is a common setting in which sexual harassment occurs and due to their lack of explicit political cues (Ohikuare, 2018) (for exact item wording, see the Online Appendix [Gothreau et al, 2022]). Since the sexual harassment scale was reliable, a mean composite score was created by averaging responses across the five items (Study 1: Cronbach’s Alpha = 0.65, M = 3.82, SD = 0.79; Study 2: Cronbach’s Alpha = 0.67, M = 3.74, SD = 0.81) and included in the analysis along with the five individual sexual harassment items.

Ideology

Political ideology was measured using a self-report item that asked participants to report their ideology on a seven-point scale (1 = very liberal to 7 = very conservative; Study 1: M = 3.98, SD = 1.74; Study 2: M = 3.43, SD = 1.82).

Demographic controls

Finally, participants completed a series of demographic questions that included age, education, race (coded dichotomously: 1 = white; 0 = non-white), gender (coded dichotomously: 1 = female; 0 = male), income and church attendance.

Data and methods: Study 3

Participants

Participants were recruited on AMT to participate in a ‘gender and political attitudes study’ in March 2018 (n = 311; four were omitted for completing less than 50 per cent of the survey instrument). Participants were compensated US$1.20 in Amazon.com credit for completing the 10- to 15-minute survey. Since women tend to experience harassment at much higher rates than men (Swim et al, 2001), we chose to only survey those who identified as women for this study, as we were interested in personally experienced gender discrimination and harassment. The sample was 74.4 per cent white, and the mean age was 39.7.

Materials and procedures

Gender discrimination and harassment

To measure personally experienced gender discrimination and harassment, we used 14 items from the Schedule of Sexist Events (SSE) (Klonoff and Landrine, 1995), as well as 15 items from the Interpersonal Sexual Objectification Scale (ISOS) (Kozee et al, 2007). Participants were asked about how often they have experienced various sexist or objectifying events on both scales. Response categories were ‘never’, ‘rarely’, ‘occasionally’, ‘frequently’ and ‘always’. The SSE taps overall gender discrimination and unfair treatment, while the ISOS taps unwanted physical evaluation (that is, objectification) and physical contact. The SSE includes such questions as how often the respondent has ‘been forced to take drastic steps (such as filing a grievance, filing a lawsuit, quitting your job, moving away and other actions) to deal with some sexist thing that was done to you’ and ‘heard people making sexist jokes or degrading sexual jokes’. The ISOS includes questions about how often the respondent has ‘heard a rude, sexual remark about your body’ and ‘experienced sexual harassment (on the job, in school, etc)’. Taken together, these measures capture a wide range of gender-based microaggressions, harassment and discrimination. Both scales display high levels of reliability (ISOS: Cronbach’s Alpha = .94; SSE: Cronbach’s Alpha = .93). A mean composite score was created for each scale by averaging responses across the items (ISOS: M = 1.36, SD = .74; SS: M = 1.08, SD = .72).

Ideology

Political ideology was measured on a six-point scale coded such that higher scores indicate a more conservative ideology (M = 3.03, SD = 1.5).

Demographic controls

Participants also completed a series of demographic questions including age, race (coded dichotomously: 1 = white; 0 = non-white), education and income.

Results

Study 1

Ordinary least squares (OLS) regression models were used to examine the relationship between political ideology and perceptions of sexual harassment for each hypothetical scenario. Political ideology was a significant predictor of labelling the workplace interactions as sexual harassment in all five scenarios, as well as the composite score, after controlling for age, gender, race, income, education and church attendance. Full regression results are presented in Table 1. Consistent with our first hypothesis conservatives were less likely to indicate that each of the five scenarios constituted sexual harassment (see Figure 1). These differences between liberals and conservatives were also reflected in the composite score, where liberals were more likely to see these workplace interactions as sexual harassment, with over one response point on the five-point response scale differing between very liberal and very conservative. The difference between liberals and conservatives was most prominent in the ‘sweetheart’ and ‘jokes’ scenarios and least different in their rating of the asking for sexual favours scenario, though liberals still found this scenario to constitute sexual harassment at a higher level than did conservatives. Consistent with previous research (Rotundo et al, 2001; Del Carmen Herrera et al, 2018), gender marginally predicted evaluations in the inferior and appearance scenarios, as well as the composite score, with women being more likely than men to believe these scenarios were sexual harassment. Race was a marginal predictor in the case of asking for sexual favours, with white respondents more likely to label this scenario as sexual harassment than non-white respondents.

Table 1:

Study 1 – OLS regression model results predicting perceptions of sexual harassment

SweetheartJokesInferiorAppearanceSexComposite
Political ideology–0.250*** (0.055)–0.188*** (0.053)–0.126** (0.062)–0.128*** (0.033)–0.105*** (0.028)–0.159*** (0.030)
Female0.238 (0.181)–0.076 (0.176)0.346* (0.204)0.254** (0.110)0.129 (0.092)0.178* (0.098)
White0.269 (0.277)–0.162 (0.269)0.435 (0.312)0.232 (0.168)0.268* (0.140)0.208 (0.150)
Age0.014 (0.050)0.034 (0.048)0.052 (0.056)–0.005 (0.030)0.002 (0.025)0.019 (0.027)
Income–0.009 (0.024)–0.004 (0.023)–0.025 (0.027)–0.003 (0.015)0.005 (0.012)–0.007 (0.013)
Education0.078 (0.146)0.139 (0.142)0.165 (0.165)–0.058 (0.089)0.042 (0.074)0.073 (0.079)
Church attendance0.005 (0.046)–0.011 (0.045)0.068 (0.052)–0.010 (0.028)–0.001 (0.023)0.010 (0.025)
Constant3.295*** (1.018)3.687*** (0.987)1.268 (1.146)5.059*** (0.616)4.671*** (0.515)3.596*** (0.550)
Observations239239239239239239
R20.1200.0790.0660.1180.0980.171
Adjusted R20.0930.0510.0370.0920.0700.146

Notes: * p < 0.1; ** p < 0.05; *** p < 0.01.

Our analysis shows that in Study 1 ideology was a strong predictor in four out of five sexual harassment scenarios. As conservative ideology increases, perceptions of the scenarios as constituting sexual harassment go down.
Figure 1:

 Study 1 – estimated effect of political ideology predicting sexual harassment in each scenario

Citation: European Journal of Politics and Gender 2022; 10.1332/251510821X16445951244136

Study 2

The same analysis strategy used in Study 1 was applied in Study 2 with a sample from AMT. We tested the same hypothesis (H1) that conservatives would be less likely to label both ambiguous and unambiguous hypothetical scenarios as sexual harassment. Six OLS regression models were estimated, with results displayed in Table 2. Political ideology was a significant predictor of three of the five scenarios and of the composite sexual harassment score.

Table 2:

Study 2 – OLS regression model results predicting perceptions of sexual harassment

SweetheartJokesInferiorAppearanceSexComposite
Political ideology–0.061* (0.034)–0.123*** (0.033)–0.024 (0.038)–0.088*** (0.023)–0.072*** (0.024)–0.073*** (0.020)
Female0.131 (0.120)0.178 (0.116)0.043 (0.134)0.339*** (0.082)0.268*** (0.084)0.192*** (0.071)
White–0.199 (0.149)–0.057 (0.143)0.004 (0.165)0.065 (0.101)0.101 (0.103)–0.017 (0.088)
Age0.013** (0.006)0.002 (0.006)0.001 (0.006)0.005 (0.004)0.004 (0.004)0.005 (0.003)
Income0.004 (0.019)0.026 (0.019)0.038* (0.022)0.017 (0.013)0.002 (0.013)0.017 (0.011)
Education0.124*** (0.041)0.086** (0.039)0.155*** (0.045)–0.021 (0.028)–0.074*** (0.028)0.054** (0.024)
Church attendance–0.012 (0.028)0.007 (0.027)–0.008 (0.031)–0.053*** (0.019)–0.070*** (0.019)–0.027* (0.016)
Constant2.514*** (0.304)3.440*** (0.293)2.148*** (0.338)4.409*** (0.206)4.919*** (0.211)3.486*** (0.180)
Observations503503503503503503
R20.0380.0450.0380.1040.1070.070
Adjusted R20.0250.0310.0250.0910.0950.057

Notes: * p < 0.1; ** p < 0.05; *** p < 0.01.

Overall, liberals were more likely than conservatives to identify the scenarios described in the vignettes as sexual harassment (see Figure 2). Liberals were significantly more likely than conservatives to agree that sexist jokes, asking for sexual favours and making comments about a woman’s clothing constituted sexual harassment. Notably, differences were modest, with those who identified as very liberal, on average, rating the scenarios as constituting sexual harassment one half of a point higher than those who identified as very conservative. Ideology was a marginal predictor of the ‘sweetheart’ scenario. Liberals and conservatives did not significantly differ in their perceptions regarding comments about women being inferior to men. With respect to the control variables, gender was a significant predictor in two of the five scenarios (comments about a woman’s clothes and pressure for sexual favours) and the composite score, with women being more likely than men to label these scenarios as sexual harassment. Older respondents were slightly more likely to see Jane being called ‘sweetheart’ and ‘honey’ as constituting sexual harassment than younger respondents. Education had a significant and positive effect on perceptions of every hypothetical scenario except asking for sexual favours and the compositive score. More educated individuals were more likely to see these scenarios as constituting sexual harassment. Income was a marginal predictor of the ‘inferior’ scenario. Finally, church attendance had a significant negative effect on ratings of two of the five scenarios (comments about a woman’s clothes and pressure for sexual favours) and the compositive score.

Our analysis shows that in Study 2 ideology was a strong predictor in three out of five sexual harassment scenarios. As conservative ideology increases, perceptions of the scenarios as constituting sexual harassment go down.
Figure 2:

Study 2 – estimated effect of political ideology predicting sexual harassment in each scenario

Citation: European Journal of Politics and Gender 2022; 10.1332/251510821X16445951244136

Study 3

To test the hypothesis that there is a relationship between ideology and evaluations of personally experienced harassment, we ran two OLS regression models. We regressed the mean composite scores for sexist and objectifying events on ideology, as well as controls for age, race, income and education. Sexist and objectifying events were examined separately to explore whether the type of harassment or unfair treatment matters when considering ideological differences in evaluations of gender discrimination and harassment. Results of these models are displayed in Table 3.

Table 3:

Study 3 – OLS regression model results predicting reports of personally experienced sexual harassment

Sexist eventsObjectifying events
Political ideology–0.121*** (0.028)–0.049 (0.030)
White–0.050 (0.098)–0.113 (0.105)
Age0.002 (0.004)0.003 (0.004)
Income–0.073* (0.042)–0.037 (0.045)
Education0.103** (0.051)0.041 (0.055)
Constant1.258*** (0.262)1.432*** (0.282)
Observations300300
R20.0890.020
Adjusted R20.0740.004

Notes: * p < 0.1; ** p < 0.05; *** p < 0.01.

Ideology was a significant predictor of reported sexist events. Figure 3 illustrates the relationship between political ideology and reported sexist events. As conservatism increases, women’s reported levels of sexist events decrease. The most liberal women are predicted to report almost twice the number of sexist events as the most conservative women. Interestingly, liberals and conservatives did not differ in reported objectifying events. With respect to the control variables, income had a significant negative relationship on sexist events. Education had a positive significant relationship on sexist events. In other words, those who report having more education and higher incomes are more likely to report experiencing discrimination and unfair treatment on the basis of their identification as a woman.

Our analysis shows that in Study 3 ideology was a strong predictor of reporting experiences of sexism. As conservative ideology increases, self-reported experiences of sexist events also increase.
Figure 3:

Predicted levels of reported sexist events across ideology

Citation: European Journal of Politics and Gender 2022; 10.1332/251510821X16445951244136

Discussion

The results of our first two studies suggested that when presented with a variety of hypothetical scenarios that could be interpreted as sexual harassment in the workplace, liberals were more likely to label these scenarios as sexual harassment than were conservatives. Liberals, particularly in the student sample, were more likely to err on the side of caution and label even ambiguous scenarios as sexual harassment. Conservatives, on the other hand, were more reluctant to label even the most extreme scenarios as sexual harassment, like Jane’s boss explicitly asking for sexual favours, a clear example of quid pro quo harassment. These findings suggest that ideology accounts for a significant portion of the variance in perceiving these hypothetical workplace scenarios between individuals as sexual harassment. However, findings were slightly different across the two samples. In Study 1, liberals were more likely to rate all five scenarios as constituting sexual harassment, while in Study 2, liberals were only more likely to rate some of the scenarios as constituting sexual harassment. Effect sizes were also more modest in the AMT sample. Differences in ratings of three of the scenarios were significant in Study 2 but substantively small. The differences in result between studies could be due differences between samples. College-age adults, regardless of ideology, in Study 1 may be more sensitive to perceiving these behaviours as harassment than the adults of all ages who participated in Study 2.

The third study extended the investigation into whether ideology is associated with differing levels of self-reported harassment, moving beyond just workplace harassment scenarios to focus on broader differences in perceptions of personally experienced harassment, objectification and gender discrimination. We found that liberal women were more likely to report personally experienced sexism and sexual harassment than were conservative women. Given the pervasiveness of harassment, it is doubtful that this asymmetry exists due to an actual difference in the amount of sexual harassment that liberal women experience verses conservative women. Rather, we suggest that the differences lie in their propensity to identify and label an experience as harassment or gender discrimination.

There are several limitations to this research. The first limitation is that these studies took place in the context of the US with non-representative samples, which makes both national and cross-national generalisations difficult. The US is particularly polarised along both partisan and ideological lines (Pew Research Center, 2014). The #MeToo movement has become a political issue in the US, with Democrats and liberals exercising some level of ownership over the issue of sexual harassment, which may influence attitudes about sexual harassment. Perhaps in contexts that are less politically polarised and where sexual harassment has not become associated as strongly with partisanship or ideology, these results would not generalise. Furthermore, harassment is less common in Scandinavian countries, which tend to have more gender-egalitarian cultures (Nielsen et al, 2009). In these countries, the relationship between ideology and perceptions of sexual harassment may not hold. The prevalence of sexual harassment in Anglo-Saxon and Southern European countries is more comparable to the prevalence of sexual harassment in the US (Nielsen et al, 2009). It would be fruitful to conduct future research in a cross-national context in countries with varying levels of sexual harassment, as well as varying levels of gender egalitarianism.

All three of our samples are non-probability samples, which raises concerns over generalisability. For example, those who take online surveys tend to over-represent those who are politically engaged (Karp and Luhiste, 2016). AMT subjects, in particular, tend to be more politically knowledgeable than national samples (Berinsky et al, 2012) and may therefore be more politically polarised. In our student sample, white Americans are over-represented, and AMT samples tend to be more liberal than the broader population of US citizens (Berinsky et al, 2012). In both samples, younger Americans are over-represented. However, other studies have found that non-probability samples can be very accurate (Twyman, 2008; Vavreck and Rivers, 2008; Ansolabehere and Schaffner, 2014), particularly in studies that focus on political ideology and psychological dispositions (Clifford et al, 2015). Additionally, the use of a student sample is instructive, as students tend to have less crystallised political attitudes and may be less polarised, providing a more difficult test of our hypotheses. We also see slight differences across the two studies, with those in the student sample more likely to see some of the more ambiguous scenarios as sexual harassment. On the whole, the support we found for our overall hypothesis across these two samples gives us confidence in the external validity of our findings.

With regards to our final study, due to its observational nature, we cannot rule out other variables that may explain why liberal women report more of these experiences than conservative women. For example, factors like the type of industry one works in (Fitzgerald et al, 1988), race (Ontiveros, 1993) and other socio-demographic factors (Bucchianeri et al, 2013) can impact how likely one is to experience sexual harassment, assault and gender discrimination. Interestingly, conservative and liberal women did not differ significantly in the reported frequency of interpersonal objectifying events. This may be because the events measured by the ISOS focus on such experiences as inappropriate sexual comments, unwanted touching and fondling, and other less ambiguous forms of harassment. The items on the SSE measure experiences that can be labelled as ‘gender discrimination’, such as overhearing sexist jokes, being denied a raise or tenure, and being treated unfairly in various settings because of one’s identity as a woman. Perhaps liberal women are more likely to interpret these specific forms of discrimination as something that is rooted in gender bias, whereas conservative women do not see these events as tied to their gender identity. Finally, this sample of women was predominantly white. This impacts how the results should be interpreted and generalised, as white women and women of colour experience sexual harassment in different ways (Welsh et al, 2006). Often, the experience of women of colour is racialised as well as gendered, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle race and gender in the context of sexual harassment and sexism generally (Cassino and Besen-Cassino, 2019). Future work that takes a more intersectional approach to explore how gender, race and ideology interact in evaluations of gender-based discrimination and harassment would be fruitful.

Furthermore, we cannot completely rule out the existence of partisan or ideological cues, even in the seemingly non-political scenarios presented, nor can we say that conservatives view these behaviours as acceptable. Due to a high likelihood of social desirability bias, we would expect most individuals to report negative views about sexual harassment (as a concept) – even if they are unlikely to label specific scenarios depicting sexual harassment as such. Future research should explore whether perceptions of sexual harassment act as a function of issue ownership and whether the term ‘sexual harassment’ carries with it an inherent ideological signal that is driving these results. Conservatives may shy away from labelling questionable workplace interactions as sexual harassment due to the prevailing conservative narratives, often driven by conservative thought leaders and media figures, surrounding sexual harassment more broadly. Conservative women, in particular, might feel pressure, based on their ideology or partisan identity, to under-report sexual harassment. This is consistent with evidence of extreme polarisation in US politics and the notion that partisan considerations often supersede any gendered considerations (Dolan, 2014). Liberals may also report hypothetical workplace interactions as sexual harassment as a virtue signal in the #MeToo era. Exploration of issue ownership and sexual harassment would be a fruitful next step.

Various avenues remain open for future study, but taken together, these studies demonstrate that ideological asymmetries in both perceptions of observed sexual harassment and lived experiences of sexual harassment exist. Our evidence shows that there is a gap between what liberals and conservatives think constitutes sexual harassment. Research has already demonstrated that partisans, and conservatives in particular, are willing to afford a greater degree of latitude to their own party’s candidate or political elite accused of sexual harassment (van der Linden and Panagopoulos, 2019). The findings presented here suggest that conservatives may be less condemnatory not only because of partisan bias and motivated reasoning, but also because conservatives do not see certain behaviours and actions as rising to the level of being labelled and perceived as sexual harassment. Relatedly, this aids in understanding why many, if not most, conservatives were not bothered by the sexual harassment and assault allegations against former President Donald Trump.

Our findings may also explain differences in support for policies that are related to sexual harassment, violence against women and other legislation that protects women in the workplace. Survey data have established that liberals are more likely to see sexual harassment as a serious issue worth addressing via public policy. The evidence presented here sheds light on the fact that these gaps in support may stem from a fundamental disagreement in definitions of sexual harassment. Furthermore, recent years have seen a rise in abuse, harassment and violence against women politicians (Krook, 2018). If there are deep-seated ideological differences in perceptions of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, this has implications for tackling the issue of abuse and harassment against women in politics.

Finally, this research directly contributes to recent work on how sexism and experiences with gender discrimination impact political behaviour, and to our understanding of how gender and ideology shape responses to gender-salient issues. The past few years have seen a large increase in the salience of sexual harassment in the political realm. Recent research demonstrates that women responded differently to the #MeToo movement and only some women were mobilised by the gender-salient message of the movement (Hansen and Dolan, 2020). If conservative women do not see sexual harassment as an issue, even when it is personally experienced, they are unlikely to be politically mobilised by it in the way that liberal women are. This has the potential to create gaps among conservative and liberal women in terms of political engagement, as we know that perceived harassment can be a mobilising force (Bankert, 2020). Ultimately, our findings further demonstrate the relevance of sexual harassment and gender discrimination to scholars of political behaviour.

Funding

This work was generously supported by the Political Physiology Lab at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and the Behavioral Foundations Lab at Temple University.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • View in gallery

     Study 1 – estimated effect of political ideology predicting sexual harassment in each scenario

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    Study 2 – estimated effect of political ideology predicting sexual harassment in each scenario

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    Predicted levels of reported sexist events across ideology

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  • Bankert, A. (2020) Let’s talk about sexism: the differential effects of gender discrimination on liberal and conservative women’s political engagement, American Politics Research, 48(6): 77991. doi: 10.1177/1532673X20939503

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Barnes, T. and Cassese, E. (2017) American party women: a look at the gender gap within parties, Political Research Quarterly, 70(1): 12741. doi: 10.1177/1065912916675738

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    • Export Citation
  • Beauregard, K. and Sheppard, J. (2021) Antiwomen but proquota: disaggregating sexism and support for gender quota policies, Political Psychology, 42(2): 21937. doi: 10.1111/pops.12696

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Blackstone, A., Houle, J. and Uggen, C. (2014) ‘I didn’t recognize it as a bad experience until I was much older’: age, experience, and workers’ perceptions of sexual harassment, Sociological Spectrum, 34(4): 31437. doi: 10.1080/02732173.2014.917247

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  • 1 Aarhus University, , Denmark
  • | 2 University of Nebraska–Lincoln, , USA
  • | 3 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, , USA

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