Culture Affects PerceptionMay 27, 2008
Is a sexist comment aimed at a middle or high school student the result of her own shortcomings or the result of her environment? For the student asking herself this question, researchers Christia Brown and Campbell Leaper found in their recent study published in Child Development, the answer depends on specific cultural factors in her life.
Brown and Leaper studied the sexual harassment experiences of 600 girls of various races from California and Georgia who were between the ages of 12 and 18. They found that 52 percent of girls received unwanted physical contact, 67 percent received unwanted romantic attention, and a significant percentage experienced sexist comments. For example, 52 percent of girls reported receiving discouraging gender-based comments on their math, science, and computer abilities, and 76 percent reported sexist comments on their athletic abilities.
The researchers found that factors like race, age, socioeconomic background, how closely the girls identified with traditional gender roles, and how much exposure they had to feminist ideas seemed to affect the way the girls understood and identified sexual harassment and thus how they reported experiencing it. Like Brown and Leaper, I think girls should be able to identify sexism and sexual harassment as negative environmental factors and not as something that is their fault or that they have to accept.
Brown and Leaper’s study sounds intriguing, and I look forward to reading the full report and learning their suggestions for how students and schools can address sexual harassment and sexist comments. You can read some of AAUW’s suggestions on how to create harassment-free schools in our reports Hostile Hallways and Harassment-Free Hallways and learn about AAUW Campus Action Projects on sexual harassment on our website.