Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

…conform to gender stereotypes, that is. I linked to this truly terrible article about a very interesting study in the WFR this week, and it deserves some further exploration. Article headline:

Don’t want to be harassed? Stop acting like a man

Shudder. Because it’s your responsibility to keep men from harassing you! Offensive headline aside, the study itself is pretty fascinating. With a much better title (“The Sexual Harassment of Uppity Women”).
In my own experience, the level of harassment is way higher if I’m wearing a skirt or dress. But that’s street harassment, and the study, by Jennifer L. Berdahl at the University of Toronto (who has done a lot of great research on harassment), is about workplace harassment. And in that situation, Berdahl found, if you’re defying traditional gender stereotypes, you’re more likely to be sexually harassed. She writes,

The original prototype of sexual harassment was a male boss sexually coercing a female subordinate. Sexual harassers were assumed to be motivated by sexual desire for their targets. If sexual harassment is motivated by sexual desire, then the most frequent targets of sexual harassment should be individuals who meet gender ideals. Gender ideals involve both physical and personality characteristics. Personality characteristics desired in men include assertiveness, independence, and dominance; those desired in women include modesty, deference, and warmth. If women are sexually harassed more than men, and if individuals who meet gender ideals are harassed more than those who do not, then women with feminine personalities should be sexually harassed the most.
I suggest that just the opposite is true. The most common form of sexual harassment is gender harassment, a form of hostile environment harassment that appears to be motivated by hostility toward individuals who violate gender ideals rather than by desire for those who meet them.

Makes sense. Think about the shit that tradeswomen and female firefighters have to endure in their male-dominated workplaces. And I’d venture a guess that a good amount of the harassment heaped upon LGBTQ individuals is not a result of who they’re sexually attracted to, but is because their gender expression is nonconforming.
Berdahl notes that this all comes down to men who get very upset when their masculine identity is challenged.

Recent experiments provide compelling evidence that this is the case. Using a computer paradigm, Maass and colleagues had men receive an electronic communication from a purported interaction partner. Half of the men received a message from a woman who said she was studying economics, intended to become a bank manager, thought women were as capable as men, and participated in a union that defended women’s rights. The other half of the men received a message from a woman who said she was studying education, intended to become an elementary school teacher to allow time for family and children, and chose not to become a lawyer because the job is more appropriate for men and she is afraid to compete with men. Men had the option of sending a variety of images to their interaction partner in reply and were more likely to send offensive pornography to the woman who expressed nontraditional beliefs and career ambitions than to the woman who expressed traditional ones.
The rationale provided by Maass et al. (2003) for why men gender harass nontraditional women is that men are motivated to derogate women when they experience a threat to their male identity. Women threaten male identity when they blur distinctions between men and women and thereby challenge the legitimacy of these distinctions and the status they confer men.

Just goes to show that you can’t win. If you like wearing skirts and heels and makeup, you’re asking for it. But if you’re an assertive woman who literally and figuratively wears the pants, you’re asking for it, too. As Berdahl said, “These results highlight the double bind faced by women who are dismissed and disrespected if feminine but scorned and disliked if masculine, limiting their ascent up the organisational ladder.”

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