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People are more likely to believe sexual harassment claims from women who are ‘conventionally attractive,’ study says

A University of Washington study finds people are more apt to believe sexual harassment claims by women who are young, “conventionally attractive,” and appear and act feminine, while women who don’t fit that prototype not only are less likely to be believed, but also are presumed to be unharmed by harassing behavior. (Aleksandr Rybalko/Dreamstime/TNS)
A University of Washington study finds people are more apt to believe sexual harassment claims by women who are young, “conventionally attractive,” and appear and act feminine, while women who don’t fit that prototype not only are less likely to be believed, but also are presumed to be unharmed by harassing behavior. (Aleksandr Rybalko/Dreamstime/TNS)

SEATTLE — No one could get over the drawing of the woman holding a martini. Or her long, slightly mussed hair, her big lips, her long lashes and hourglass figure.

Of course she would be sexually harassed, the study participants thought.

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As for the drawing of the other person? The one with dots for eyes, the Beatles moptop, the skinny pants and more androgynous physical features? No way would anyone hit on her, say something inappropriate or use her gender to keep her from getting somewhere in life, they thought.

And that is exactly the point.

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When two University of Washington researchers asked people to draw two women — one likely to be sexually harassed, and one who would never find herself in such a position — the results were clear: Looks are everything.

“The pictures were brought into my office and we were lining them up,” said Cheryl Kaiser, chair of the University of Washington Department of Psychology and one of the study’s senior authors. “Clearly, those were the extremes. But it proved that the images in our heads are incredibly narrow.”

The study found people are more apt to believe sexual harassment claims by women who are young, “conventionally attractive” and appear and act feminine. Women who don’t fit that prototype not only are less likely to be believed, but also are presumed to be unharmed by harassing behavior, the study said.

“The findings demonstrate that more masculine and unattractive women are less credible and that they will be less psychologically harmed because they would be less distressed,” said Bryn Bandt-Law, a psychology graduate student and one of the study’s lead authors.

“And that their perpetrators,” she added, “deserve less punishment.”

The study, published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was co-led by Jin Goh, a former UW postdoctoral researcher now at Colby College, and Nathan Cheek of Princeton University.

It examined who observers think is harassed, what constitutes harassment and how claims of harassment are perceived. It involved 4,000 participants and used digitally manipulated headshots and written scenarios. There was also an exercise in which participants were asked to draw a “typical” victim of harassment. It was a basic, free-form way to express biases, Kaiser said.

That’s when the Martini Lady and the Lost Beatle came back.

The findings have implications for workplaces and courtrooms, where credibility and perceived harm are important to making a case, said Kaiser and Bandt-Law.

“Perceptions of credibility and harm are critical,” Bandt-Law said. “So if people don’t believe someone was harassed, or harmed, they will be less likely to punish the perpetrator.”

So when someone who isn’t conventionally attractive is experiencing sexual harassment, “people don’t believe them, or their experiences are not being taken seriously,” Bandt-Law said.

What’s worse, the findings apply to self-perception. If someone believes they aren’t conventionally attractive, they may doubt their own feelings of being targeted.

“People might delude themselves into thinking they wouldn’t be sexually harassed,” Bandt-Law said, “and then not go to the human resources and report it.”

Bandt-Law was inspired by what she saw during the #MeToo movement: Not all victims of sexual harassment were given the same attention, or were benefiting equally from the movement.

In fact, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke suggested that the mainstream movement was using only white, attractive actresses to make its point. Less conventionally attractive victims “were not just neglected, but not believed,” Bandt-Law said.

Other cases bore this out: When writer E. Jean Carroll accused Donald Trump of sexually assaulting her in a department store dressing room in the mid-1990s, Trump dismissed it by saying, “Number one, she’s not my type.”

And in 2018, Italian prosecutors declined to press sexual-assault charges against a sports executive because they believed his accuser — a woman in her 50s — was old enough, and knew the executive well enough that she wouldn’t be afraid or intimidated in an encounter with him.

The year before, also in Italy, two men were cleared of rape charges because an Italian appeals court — consisting of three female judges — thought the alleged female victim looked “too masculine” to be sexually assaulted.

The study’s findings have implications not only for the courts, but for human-resource departments, schools — everywhere, said Kaiser, who also analyzed the research results through the prism of civil-rights law.

“It’s supposed to offer protections, and it’s not serving people,” she said.

The study could help convince plaintiffs — and lawyers — that cases are worth being heard, because accusations must be deemed credible, and incidents harmful, for harassment claims to be resolved legally.

To that end, Kaiser would like to do field work with lawyers and use the study as “an access point to justice.”

“It’s especially jarring and sad, and they do make me angry,” Bandt-Law said. “But I do think in order to understand why some women are more neglected than others, we have to understand where these biases come from.

“This paper helps us understand that stereotypes about women are guiding biased perceptions of sexual harassment,” she said. “We can then think about how to broaden people’s perception of harassment.”

Bandt-Law and Kaiser are still collecting data that will explore perceptions — and harassment — of people based on race and sexual identity.

“When we think of a stereotypical woman, we think of one who is white and cisgender,” Bandt-Law said. “We’re looking to see if we have biased perceptions when transgender women and Black women are sexually harassed.”

So there are more findings — and drawings — to come.

Said Kaiser: “The hope, at least the very first step, would be making people aware of this bias that we have, and that we can facilitate where people can broaden their perceptions.

“It’s a receptive time for this work.”

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