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Combating Sexual Harassment Stereotypes in the Workplace

December 6, 2017

Portrait of Chris Uggen

Portrait of Chris Uggen
Photo by Cullen Kobayashi, CLAgency student

In August of 2016, current president Donald Trump made a personal statement about sexual harassment and its effect on working women. Trump revealed to USA Today that if his daughter Ivanka was ever harassed in the workplace he would “like to think she would find another career or find another company.” However, through his research, Regents Professor Chris Uggen has discovered an opposing viewpoint.

Based on his findings, Uggen declares that dialogue encouraging women to leave a career because of sexual harassment is “part of the problem we see. If you are investing in your early career, you don’t want to start over in another career, because you will be behind.” This social issue leaves women workers at a disadvantage in the long term. 

Regents Professor Chris Uggen has been working at the University of Minnesota since 1995 and has been engaged in multiple research projects ranging from discriminatory practices against previous felons to interviews with genocide perpetrators. While his areas of interest vary, his overall philosophy has remained the same, “I do work across crime, law, justice. And the overarching goal or mission is that I think good social science data can help us build a more just, more fair world but also a more peaceful and safer one.” 

Uggen’s passion for equality has led him to study the long-term effects of sexual harassment of women and how society can improve conditions for working women. 

Long-Term Effect on Careers

An advantage of interviewing and surveying a group of people over time is that one is able to see how the course of their life changes based on negative or positive situations they’ve encountered in the workplace. Uggen’s research into the long-term effects of sexual harassment began by studying a cohort of St. Paulites, starting with their middle school years and continuing into their late 30s. This longitudinal study was ideal for viewing how early work experiences, including sexual harassment, can, as Uggen notes, “alter the trajectory of your mental health, your earnings, your career choices.” 

One of the main myths about sexual harassment that Uggen debunked in the study is the societal perception that harassment cases always involve a powerful boss harassing a subordinate woman. While these situations do sometimes occur, Uggen argues that “a lot of people aren’t harassed by their bosses, but they are harassed by their peers or by their clients and sometimes by those who are below them in the organizational hierarchy. In particular, women who become supervisors are more likely to be sexually harassed.” 

He describes that sexual harassment against women supervisors typically isn’t about sexual desire, but is more about undermining the authority of the individual. Uggen concludes that it is a relatively easy way for a worker to attack a female boss through “objectifying them and treating them this way.” 

The Implications of Sexual Harassment

By interviewing the participants of the study, Uggen's research has provided valuable insight into the personal and professional effects of harassment on various working women, ranging from construction workers to corporate supervisors. He says, “One of the key findings is that [harassment] does seem to have a long-term effect on many outcomes including mental health, psychological outcomes, but also on financial outcomes.” 

Uggen describes how suffering from severe harassment makes victims more likely to quit their jobs and have to start over in a new field. Sexual harassment that occurs early in the career can put women at a significant, long-term disadvantage and alter their life trajectory. 

The Fight for Justice Continues

As for the future, Uggen is driven to continue studying structural inequalities within society and the ways these problems can be solved. He stresses the importance of sociological research in our modern era, “as sociologists we have to consider more than just individual targets or perpetrators. . . you have to think about the effect on broader groups.” Uggen says, “I think a lot of Minnesota sociologists share that vision of using social science to shed light on some phenomena that results in more justice and more peace.” With his continued engagement through research initiatives and creative problem solving, Chris Uggen strives to use social science to create social change and improvements not only for women facing harassment, but for the larger society as well. 

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.