Men who stick up for women’s rights are subjected to more sexual harassment at work

Upon mention of sexual harassment at work, it’s natural to think immediately of women as the targets, but actually men experience harassment too. And it’s on the increase, at least in the US. In 2013, men filed 17.6 per cent of the thousands of sexual harassment charges recorded in the country that year (up from 16.1 per cent in 2011).

A new study in Psychology of Men and Masculinity surveyed 326 men in the US (most were white, 25 were gay or bisexual) about their experiences of sexual harassment at work. They had careers in a wide range of fields from IT to law, and their average age was 32. The study doesn’t provide us with specific rates of harassment as such because the men were asked to score their experiences of different forms of harassment on a 5-point scale from 1=never to 5=very often. The average score for “gender harassment” (this is more often perpetrated by men against men in the form of being exposed to sexual jokes and stories, but also includes hearing or receiving derogatory remarks about men) was 1.27, and for “sexual advance harassment” (which includes inappropriate and unwanted touching or other sexual advances) was 1.14.

A key finding was that men who said they engaged in more forms of feminist activism – for example, they attended meetings or signed a petition – also tended to report experiencing more sexual harassment, of both types. Kathryn Holland and her colleagues said this is consistent with the idea men who challenge the existing gendered hierarchy at work end up getting punished (just as women do) – a phenomenon they refer to as “gender policing”. If it sounds strange to think of women punishing men who challenge men’s unfair dominance at work, remember that past research has shown that some women cope with a macho work culture by adapting their own identities, in some cases becoming “Queen Bees”. For these women, and others who find a way to thrive in a masculinised environment, any challenge to the status quo can be seen as a threat.

Other findings to emerge from the survey: men’s sexuality was not related to how much harassment they reported; men’s harassment scores were (not surprisingly) higher in organisations that had a cultural tolerance of harassment; and men who reported experiencing more harassment also reported lower well-being and job satisfaction. Intriguingly, however, on the last point, men who engaged in more feminist activism seemed to be protected against the ill effect of being harassed – perhaps, the researchers surmised, this is because they are less likely to blame themselves and are more aware of problematic gender-based beliefs in society.

The researchers said their study “helped advance our understanding of sexual harassment of men in the workplace”. But a major caveat to the findings is that it’s possible men who spend more time standing up for women’s rights report being harassed more themselves, not because they really are, but simply because they are more sensitive to and attuned to instances of sexual harassment, whether directed at colleagues or themselves. This would undermine the claim that they are being punished for their feminist activism.


Holland, K., Rabelo, V., Gustafson, A., Seabrook, R., & Cortina, L. (2016). Sexual harassment against men: Examining the roles of feminist activism, sexuality, and organizational context. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 17 (1), 17-29 DOI: 10.1037/a0039151

further reading
A misogynistic workplace is bad for male employees too
Queen Bees are the consequence not the cause of sexist work-places
Is sexism in science really over?
Can this innovative intervention reduce sexism among male undergraduates?
Psychology of Men special issue of The Psychologist

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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