Harassment twice as bad for minority women

Study finds double jeopardy of sexual and ethnic harassment
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/10/2006

While most companies have clear-cut policies against sexism and racism, employers must look deeper to ensure the more subtle forms of harassment perpetrated against minority women aren’t creeping into the workplace, according to a University of Toronto professor.

“Harassment is usually conceptualized as this very overt and direct behaviour,” said Jennifer Berdahl of the university’s Rotman School of Management. “But harassment is also sabotaging them, ignoring them, silencing them in a persistent way that frustrates and wears down and aggravates the target. I would suspect that minority women might be treated almost as invisible.”

This persistent form of harassment has a profound effect on minority women, both at work and in their personal lives. Berdahl’s recent study,

Workplace Harassment: Double Jeopardy for Minority Women

, found harassment affects how these women view work and the choices they make about what kind of work they want to do. It also leads to higher instances of post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, depression, lower life satisfaction and more work withdrawal and aversion to the workplace.

These women are less likely to fight harassment because of their uniquely powerless position in the workplace, said Berdahl. The workforce is highly segregated along sex and race lines, with women and ethnic minorities occupying lower-paying, less prestigious and less powerful jobs than white men, she said. She cited studies that showed Latinas and black women in particular earn the lowest wages, have the least authority in the workplace and are most concentrated in undesirable jobs.

“Harassment and discrimination really depend on power. In order to harass somebody, you have to have some sort of power over them, otherwise it’s not threatening,” said Berdahl. “Minority women are particularly vulnerable to being harassed because they are both women and minorities.”

The definition of harassment has to change to take into account the unique experiences of minority women, for whom harassment is probably more subtle and prevalent than it is for white women and minority men, said Berdahl.

“We have to look at these daily forms of behaviour, not just these discrete, obvious decisions to hire or not to hire, but these subtle discouragements that happen every day and add up to lead minority women to grow wary,” she said.

However, the problem with most research is that it has focused on white women’s experiences of sexual harassment and minority men’s experiences of ethnic harassment, while overlooking minority women, said Berdahl.

Her study, published in March’s

Journal of Applied Psychology

, compares the harassment experiences of white men, white women, minority men and minority women.

The study surveyed 238 employees at five different organizations in the same North American city. Berdahl refused to identify the city in the survey, because she wanted to drive home the point that this type of discrimination could happen anywhere. Three of the organizations were male-dominated manufacturing plants and two were female-dominated community service centres.

The study confirmed the long-held belief that minority women face a double jeopardy.

It lends empirical proof to the findings of Catalyst Canada’s own

Women of Colour


“If it’s a glass ceiling for women generally, it’s the proverbial concrete ceiling for women of colour,” said Sonya Kunkel, senior director of the Toronto-based research and advisory organization.

The classic barriers to women’s advancement — a lack of access to role models, mentoring opportunities and formal networks — become that much more entrenched when ethnicity is added to the equation, she said.

Berdahl believes further research that uses harassment measures identified by minority women will reveal a minority woman is more vulnerable to sexual harassment than a white woman because of her race; she’s also more vulnerable to ethnic harassment than a minority man because of her sex.

“The first step is moving away from the prototype of the typical sexual harassment victim as a white female and moving away from the prototype of the typical ethnic harassment target as a minority man and realizing that minority women are also very real targets of this kind of behaviour and probably the prototypical targets,” she said.

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