Survey: Most harassers are under 40. We shouldn’t be surprised.

Sexual Harassers Probably Aren’t the Old Men You Imagine They Are

Sexual Harassers Probably Aren’t the Old Men You Imagine They Are

Better Life Lab
The Future of Work, Gender, and Social Policy
Dec. 5 2017 1:37 PM

Survey Finds Many Harassers Are Under 40. We Shouldn’t Be Surprised.

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Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock, Flickr CC.

Alicia thought she was just being friendly. She’d stopped by the desk of another co-worker at the startup she worked at—an “oddball.” She’d thought to say hello and get to know him. He was a subject expert she needed to interview as part of her job.

But soon, the “oddball” started stopping by her desk often, suggesting they go to Paris together, making romantically suggestive comments, and inviting her to lunch, even though Alicia repeatedly turned down his invitations. “I figured I could ignore it,” she said. But then he started sending her sexually explicit poems, followed later by apologies over Gchat.

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“He knew it was inappropriate,” said Alicia, who asked that her last name not be used for the story. She knew she should probably report him, but she didn’t. “I remember thinking, I don’t want to be the person that has to teach him a lesson.” She was new, she wanted to be liked, she worked predominantly with guys, and she wasn’t sure that sexually explicit poems rose to the level of harassment. This guy wasn’t a superior, and he wasn’t in a position of power over her or her career. He was no Matt Lauer or Harvey Weinstein. He was only a few years older than she was, somewhere in his mid-30s.

Though we simply don’t have big data on who harrasses most, a new online survey from Fairygodboss, a website offering job and company reviews directed at women, found that it’s not just the men in positions of power who harass women but oftentimes younger men who are colleagues and not bosses or supervisors.

From a pool of its members, Fairygodboss surveyed over 500 women employed in a variety of different industries and job types and found that nearly 43 percent of the women who responded have experienced harassment at work, and over 70 percent of those they describe as their perpetrators are reported to be 40 or younger. Only 7 percent of harassers were over the age of 60.

The survey also found that the women who reported being harassed were more likely to experience harassment from a colleague rather than a direct boss or management, and about 50 percent of women said they did not report the harassment when it occurred because they did not want to be perceived as a “troublemaker.”

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The results were surprising, said Mary Pharris, director of business development and partnerships at Fairygodboss, both in that the harassers were colleagues, not bosses, and younger. “Perhaps it’s because of the narrative you’re seeing play out in the media, particularly among older men who occupy positions of power,” said Pharris. “It creates the perception that harassers would be older, and their direct bosses.”

These findings suggest it is not simply a generational problem that we should expect to decline as baby boomers retire. “Harassment isn’t exclusive to one age bracket or where you rank in a company. I think it just means that harassment can be more pervasive than some of us originally thought,” said Pharris.

“We know sexual harassment does happen to all generations, and it does happen a lot with colleagues as well,” said Brenda Russell, a professor of applied psychology at Pennsylvania State University at Berks who studies tolerance of harassment.

And despite the hopes of many that the #MeToo moment reflects a changing of the guard and a last gasp of the gender dynamics that were permitted in the workplaces of yesterday, there’s good reason to think our culture is producing future harassers even before they start their professional lives.

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Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, believes that the American college campus has become a breeding ground for the misogyny that runs rampant in certain workplace cultures. A lot has been said about the high rates of sexual assault on campuses, but this trend reflects a more general culture of misogyny and toxic masculinity in college life.

“We don’t know exactly what leads some men to harass or assault,” said Grigoriadis in an interview with Slate. But two of the factors, Grigoriadis said, are the feeling of entitlement and misogyny. And colleges, specifically the four-year residential colleges attended by many affluent Americans, are perpetuating this culture.

Universities, said Grigoriadis, have become nervous about litigation around drinking, and binge drinking numbers have been high, so they feel “legally covered” if students go off campus to drink in fraternity houses rather than dorm rooms. “Fraternities control the social scene in colleges,” she said, with misogynistic themed parties such as “pimps and hos,” where women are encouraged to show up in scantily clad attire for heavy drinking in an unsupervised environment.

“It’s not a surprise that kids who come out of normal American pop culture and this skewed college system that reinforces these beliefs—they get to professional life, and they don’t know where the normal boundaries are,” said Grigoriadis.

Age may also be a factor in how women react to sexual harassment. Russell points to research from the ’90s that shows younger and older women were both less tolerant of sexual harassment by men, but current research shows that it’s younger women who are more tolerant than the older women. “[The older women] have more job security, experience, and confidence. They may be in supervisory experience. It’s hard to look at age. There is so much more with regard to sexism, confidence, and maturity that plays a role that we have to statistically try and control for to get to specific generational differences. That is why there is not a lot of research on the topic,” said Russell.

Proposals to institute mandatory sexual harassment training, like the program the U.S. Congress has implemented in the wake of allegations of leniency, show that workplace cultural change is possible. Colleges are encouraging more affirmative-consent practices, replacing the no means no slogan with yes means yes, and Grigoriadis believes such affirmative-consent practices could be good in the workplace too. “We know that guys aren’t always the greatest at reading signals,” she said. And when there’s a culture of fear, women aren’t always great at speaking up.

The Fairygodboss report included suggestions for fixing the problems too, including encouraging women to speak up, instituting protections for those who do, and creating the option for anonymous reporting. Nearly half the women polled also thought the increased media attention on sexual harassers would help reduce the number of future incidents.

Grigoriadis agrees. “Things like what is happening right now are going to be what is making a difference: speaking out, bringing it into the light. This boldness has gotten a lot of guys’ attentions.” Whether men are finally understanding why harassment is wrong or they’re just newly afraid of the repercussions is a different question. “Whether they are afraid or empathetic people, I don’t know, but it’s got their attention. That is for sure.”

Better Life Lab is a partnership of Slate and New America.

Rebecca Gale is a regular contributor to the Better Life Lab and an award-winning journalist covering the nexus of politics and people in Washington. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Roll Call, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Health Affairs, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter.