Do Victims’ Race and Gender Identity Interact to Predict the Perceived Credibility of Sexual Harassment Claims?

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Principal investigators:

Jennifer L. Mezzapelle

University at Albany, SUNY



Anna-Kaisa Reiman

University at Albany, SUNY



Sample size: 2113

Field period: 09/07/2021-11/16/2021

Sexual harassment discourse typically focuses on prototypical targets – White cisgender women – and overlooks nonprototypical targets. In a preregistered study, participants (N=2,088, nationally representative U.S. sample) read an HR sexual harassment incident report filed by a woman whose gender identity (cisgender vs. transgender) and race (Black vs. White) varied. Participants reported assumptions about harassment type, claim credibility, harm to the claimant, support for financial compensation for the claimant, and punishment for the harasser. Cisgender women (regardless of race) were assumed to have experienced primarily unwanted sexual attention and unwanted references to appearance, whereas transgender women (regardless of race) were assumed to have experienced gender harassment. Perceptions of claim credibility varied slightly, with Black cisgender women’s claims being seen as slightly more credible than White cisgender women’s claims. Perceived harm, support for financial compensation, and punishment recommendations did not vary based on claimant identity. People may consider women’s identities when thinking about the type of harassment experienced but fail to do so regarding other aspects of harassment, potentially resulting in inequitable support for claimants.

Our overarching research question was: Do third-party observers’ perceptions of a woman’s claim of workplace sexual harassment differ depending on the claimant’s race (Black or White) and/or gender identity (cisgender or transgender)? We examined this question with five outcome measures, assessing potential differences as a function of the claimant’s intersectional identity on the following:

1) assumptions of the form of sexual harassment the claimant experienced

2) perceived claim credibility

3) perceived harm to the claimant

4) support for financial compensation for the claimant

5) recommended consequences for the perpetrator.

Experimental Manipulations
Participants were randomly assigned to see one of four human resources sexual harassment incident reports. In the demographics section of the report, the sexual harassment claimant Michelle’s race and gender identity was manipulated, meaning that participants saw a claim from a Black cisgender woman, a Black transgender woman, a White cisgender woman, or a White transgender woman. The report was otherwise identical across conditions. The report was also partially redacted so that participants did not receive any details about the nature of the sexual harassment, just the information that the accused party (John) had been making her uncomfortable, that it was inappropriate, and that Michelle felt this was negatively affecting her work.

1) Assumed Form of Sexual Harassment: To assess whether different forms of sexual harassment were associated with different identities, we asked participants an open-ended question about what they believed John had said or done to Michelle. Responses were content-coded based on recurring themes.

2) Claim Credibility: Participants were asked to rate their agreement that the claim was credible, believable, and truthful.

3) Perceived Harm to the Claimant: Participants were asked to rate their agreement that this experience caused Michelle harm.

4) Support for Compensation: Participants were asked to rate their agreement that if Michelle sought financial compensation through litigation, they would be likely to find in favor of Michelle.

5) Consequence Recommendation: Participants were asked to indicate what they believed was the most appropriate punishment for John if an investigation concluded that he had sexually harassed Michelle. Participants were given eight punishment options to choose from.

Summary of Results

1) Assumed Form of Sexual Harassment: Mentions of Michelle experiencing unwanted sexual attention (χ2(3)=44.08, p<.001, V=.15) and John making references to Michelle’s appearance (χ2(3)=26.98, p<.001, V=.11) were both more common when Michelle was a cisgender (vs. transgender) woman, regardless of her race. Mentions of unwanted romantic attention also varied, being more frequent when Michelle was a White cisgender (vs. White or Black transgender) woman and when Michelle was a Black cisgender (vs. White transgender) woman (χ2(3)=20.07, p<.001, V=.10). Mentions of gender harassment were more frequent when Michelle was a transgender (vs. cisgender) woman, regardless of her race (χ2(3)=206.99, p<.001, V=.32). The assumption that John had made a reference to Michelle’s race was more common when Michelle was a Black (vs. White) woman, regardless of her gender identity (χ2(3)=32.82, p<.001, V=.13). Lastly, mentions of Michelle experiencing unwanted physical touch did not differ based on her identity (χ2(3)=2.36, p=.502, V=.03). When Michelle was a cisgender woman, unwanted sexual attention was the most common assumption, while gender harassment was the most common assumption when Michelle was a transgender woman.

2) Claim Credibility: We observed a small effect of identity on perceived credibility, F(3, 2081)=2.63, p=.049, η2p=.004. Bonferroni-corrected post-hoc comparisons showed that perceived credibility was higher when Michelle was a Black (vs. White) cisgender woman, p=.036, d=0.19. All other comparisons were not significant, ps.483.

3) Perceived Harm to the Claimant: We did not observe reliable differences for our perceived harm outcome variable, F(3, 2077)=1.24, p=.293, η2p=.002.

4) Support for Financial Compensation: We did not observe reliable differences for our support for financial compensation outcome variable, F(3, 2074)=0.70, p=.555, η2p=.001.

5) Consequence Recommendation: Perceptions of the most appropriate punishment for John did not vary reliably by condition, Kruskal-Wallis H(3)=4.95, p=.176. Across conditions, sexual harassment training and counseling was the most frequent recommendation (selected by 34.8% of participants). Termination was the second most frequent (selected by 24.3% of participants), followed by formal warning (selected by 21.4% of participants).

Mezzapelle, J. L., & Reiman, A. (2023, April 19-22). Do workplace sexual harassment claimants’ gender identity and race influence assumptions about the harassment incident? In Mezzapelle, J. L. (Chair), Reading the room: Context and perceptions of workplace sexual harassment [Symposium]. Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Annual Conference, Boston, MA, United States.