Perpetuation of Gender Stereotypes

last updated April 30, 2007

Many experts on sexual harassment maintain that sexual harassment contributes to the subordination of women by perpetuating gender stereotypes in the workplace.

Kathryn Abrams asserts in the following passage that women's experience of sexual harassment has the effect of sexualizing and thereby devaluing a woman's role in the workplace:

Sexual inquiries, jokes, remarks or innuendoes sometimes can raise the spectre of coercion, but they more predictably have the effect of reminding a woman that she is viewed as an object of sexual derision rather than as a credible coworker. A woman who is continuously queried by male colleagues about her sexual preferences, referred to by coworkers as "the f- - -ing flag girl," or depicted on the walls of men's restrooms in sexual poses is being told that she is not, first and foremost, a credible colleague and an equal. This message would be disturbing to any worker, even one who felt comfortable and secure in the workplace. For a female worker, who may not have been socialized to feel comfortable in that role, and who may have faced numerous men who have difficulty viewing women as workers rather than wives or dates, this message can be devastating. Treatment that sexualizes women workers prevents them from feeling, and prevents others from perceiving them, as equal in the workplace.

From Kathryn Abrams, Gender Discrimination and the Transformation of Workplace Norms, Vanderbilt Law Review, vol. 42, 1183, 1207-1209 (1989).

In the following commentary, Barbara Gutek notes that emphasizing women's sex role at work will have a damaging effect on her professional reputation at work in a way that emphasizing man's sex role will not:

A man apparently can make sexual jokes and comments, use sexual obscenities, proposition women at work, dress to attract women, and will be considered a desirable worker: analytical, rational, tough, a good leader. The sexual aspect of the male sex role does not interfere with the perception of men as serious, professional workers. A woman cannot be an analytical, rational leader and a sex object at the same time. When she becomes a sex object, her status as a sex object overpowers other aspects of her sex role and completely overwhelms the work role she is trying to occupy.

From Barbara Gutek, Sex and the Workplace 166 (1985).

Katherine Franke maintains in the following excerpt of her work that sexually harassing behavior is aimed at reinforcing masculine and feminine gender norms:

According to the theory I develop . . . the sexual harassment of a woman by a man is an instance of sexism precisely because the act embodies fundamental gender stereotypes: men as sexual conquerors and women as sexually conquered, men as masculine sexual objects and women as feminine sexual objects. . . . Sexual harassment is a technology of sexism. It is a disciplinary practice that inscribes, enforces, and polices the identities of both harasser and victim according to a system of gender norms that envision women as feminine, (hetero)sexual objects, and men as masculine, (hetero)sexual subjects. . . . On my account, sexual harassment—between any two people of whatever sex—is a form of sex discrimination when it reflects or perpetuates gender stereotypes in the workplace. I suggest a reconceptualization of sexual harassment as gender harassment. Understood in this way, sexual harassment is a kind of sex discrimination not because the conduct would not have been undertaken in the victim had been a different sex, not because it is sexual, and not because men do it to women, but precisely because it is a technology of sexism. That is, it perpetuates, enforces, and polices a set of gender norms that seek to feminize women and masculinize men . . . Similarly, sexual harassment operates as a means of policing, traditional gender norms particularly in the same-sex context when men who fail to live up to a societal norm of masculinity are punished by their male coworkers through sexual means.

From Katherine M. Franke, What's Wrong with Sexual Harassment, Stanford Law Review, Vol. 49, 691, 693, 696 (1997).