Sexual Harassment in the Federal Workplace: Bridging the Gap Between Genders

By Sandra F. Masci and Sonya Sanderson
2016, Vol. 8 No. 11 | pg. 1/1


A meta-analytic review was conducted on the adverse outcomes and prevalence of sexual harassment in a federally operated workplace. Both males and females were included in the analysis which fills a gap in prior research. Researchers report a total of 11 studies, nine examining sexual harassment prevalence rates and two examining adverse work outcomes. Results found that sexual harassment was prevalent in the federal workplace r = .60, with women experiencing sexual harassment significantly more than men. Gender harassment had the greatest adverse effects as reported by employees r = .84 and was positively correlated with sexual harassment. The present findings suggest that sexual harassment in the workplace is still a critical topic of concern to employers. Future research should address both same sex and opposite sex harassment to display the value of providing more comprehensive trainings and prevention programs to employers.

Sexual harassment in the workplace remains a pervasive problem in the United States. Research has shown that approximately 50% of women will experience sexual harassment at some point during their work lives (Harned, Ormerod, Palmieri, Collinsworth, & Reed, 2002). According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] (2015), sexual harassment is a form of sex based discrimination prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In order to qualify as sexual harassment, victims can be of any sex, do not have to be the opposite sex of the harasser, and the harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome. The victim could be anyone who was offended by the harasser’s conduct and does not have to be the person who was personally harassed [EEOC] (2015).

Fitzgerald, Gelfand & Drasgow (1995) based sexual harassment on a three dimensional model: gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion. Gender harassment involves a large variety of behaviors that are insulting, hostile, and degrading. Unwanted sexual attention is sexual attention that is undesired. And lastly, sexual coercion is how people typically view sexual harassment; it is often viewed as the extortion of sexual cooperation for job related favors (Fitzgerald et al., 1995).

Sexual harassment can have adverse outcomes for employees and has been found to be negatively correlated with coworker satisfaction, psychological well-being, work satisfaction, supervisor satisfaction, and health satisfaction (Fitzgerald, Drasgow, & Magley, 1999; Harned et al., 2002). The experience of sexual harassment can also lead to negative organizational outcomes such as higher absenteeism, increased turnover, lower job satisfaction, and job performance (Firestone, 1993; Gutek & Koss, 1993). Gender harassment specifically has been shown to have a large impact on employee’s adverse outcomes such as an individual’s psychological well-being (Murry, Sivasubramaniam & Jacques, 2001; Richman, Rospenda, Flaherty & Freels, 2001; Snyder, Fisher, Scherer & Daigle, 2012). Biological gender is given at birth and surrounded by societal norms and stereotypes associated with that individual’s gender classification (Berdahl, 2007). Therefore it is reasonable to propose that gender harassment would have a large, negative impact on employees. Based on the previous findings we propose the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1a: Gender harassment, co-worker satisfaction, supervisor satisfaction, work satisfaction, health satisfaction, and psychological well-being will be negatively correlated with the experience of sexual harassment.

Hypothesis 1b: Gender harassment will have the more significant impact on adverse work outcomes for employees.

Females who violate traditional gender norms are at greater risk of sexual harassment in the work place. Those who viewed themselves as more masculine were significantly more likely to be harassed on the job (Berdahl, 2007). Also, it was found that single and divorced young females in low status jobs have been shown to be the greatest targets of harassment (Newman, Jackson & Baker, 2003). The underrepresentation of females in certain jobs has also been associated with increased risk for gender harassment (Culbertson & Rosenfeld, 1994; Kabat-Farr & Cortina, 2014).

The present meta-analysis examined the prevalence of sexual harassment among males and females in the federal workplace. There is a wealth of research to suggest that sexual harassment happens to both genders, even though females report more instances of sexual harassment (Berdahl, 2007; Firestone & Harris, 2003, Harned et al., 2002; Jackson & Newman, 2004; Maypole, 1986; Stockdale et al., 1999). However, this finding could be exaggerated by the fact that males are not as likely to take the occurrence of harassment as serious or offensive (Stockdale et al., 1999). Therefore, we propose the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis2a: Sexual harassment experience will be significantly prevalent in the federal workplace

Hypothesis 2b: Sexual harassment will be significantly more prevalent in females when compared to males

Both genders were examined using a meta-analytic review based on the 1995 Fitzgerald et al., model. The present review was conducted to further advance existing research on sexual harassment and to develop new theories which can aid in the prevention of sexual harassment in the federal workplace. Conducting a meta-analysis has several advantages compared to qualitative reviews (Hunter & Schmidt, 1990). Using a meta-analysis allows researchers to convert statistical results from several studies to a common measurement, which gives a more comprehensive portrayal of sexual harassment. A meta-analysis can also control for sampling error effects and help correct for variance in other study findings by determining how much of the variance was due to chance.

Previous meta-analyses on sexual harassment have examined what qualifies as a sexually harassing behavior, prevalence of harassment in women, the antecedents and consequences of workplace harassment, and sexual versus non-sexual aggression on workplace violence (Willness, Steel, & Lee, 2007). However, there has been a lack of analysis examining the experience of sexual harassment by both males and females in the workplace. The present meta-analysis seeks to fill this research gap by examining sexual harassment prevalence rates between males and females in the federal workplace. To the researchers knowledge this meta-analysis will be the first to examine what gender sexual harassment is more prevalent in a federal workplace, possible reasons for the findings, adverse outcomes related to sexual harassment, and what directions future research can take to combat these social issues.

We will examine the federal workplace specifically, as there has been a lack of comprehensive research done in a federal setting. The context of a work setting, such as male to female population ratios, typical male dominated jobs (e.g. the military, politics, etc.) have been shown to be an antecedent of sexual harassment (Jackson & Newman, 2004; Lawless & Fox, 2012; Newman et al., 2003; O’Connel & Korabik, 2000). The federal workplace in particular has largely skewed male to female ratios, the U.S. military having the largest gap with males comprising 85% of active duty members (Firestone & Harris, 1999).

Sexual harassment is especially prevalent in the military with 64% of females reporting the experience of harassment (Jackson & Newman, 2003). Research has also shown that gender and how much contact females have with males at work are significant predictors of harassment (Gruber, 1998). However, in other federal organizations reporting rates are lower with only 42% of females reporting sexual harassment, which is in stark contrast to other reports saying that 90% of women have experienced harassment on the job (Woody & Perry, 1993).

As previously mentioned, the federal workplace often has largely skewed gender ratios making the occurrence of sexual harassment more prevalent (Gruber, 1998). In order to investigate this disparity in the literature the following meta-analysis only examines federal organizations. It is imperative that sexual harassment in solely federal contexts be examined.


Literature Search

In order to provide a comprehensive review on the our research topic, the keywords “sexual harassment,” “discrimination,” “workplace,” “men,” “women” and “military” were used in online research databases such as Google Scholar, Galileo and Psyc Info. Inclusion criteria required that studies examined sexual harassment in a quantitative way in either the context of sexual harassment prevalence rates or adverse work outcomes. Studies had to include both males and females in their analyses and had to occur in a federal work setting. A federal work setting was defined as any workplace funded by the United States government; for example places such as schools and the military were included. Weighted mean differences, effect sizes, and credibility intervals were calculated and used to determine the quality of the studies for inclusion using the Hunter & Schmidt (2004) method and be found in Table 1.

Studies were excluded if they did not meet the above criteria, or if they did not report sufficient data with which to conduct a meta-analysis. The final data set included data from nine studies examining sexual harassment prevalence rates, and two studies examining adverse work outcomes. A breakdown of all studies (issue examined, methodology, participants, and results of the study) used within the present meta-analysis can be found in the Appendix.

Before the exclusionary process began, data was collected from over 50 independent samples. The final data set included data from nine studies examining sexual harassment prevalence rates, and two studies examining adverse work outcomes. All remaining studies included both males and females, examined prevalence rates or adverse work outcomes, and occurred in a federal workplace setting.

Study Coding

Studies were organized by source type (peer reviewed journal, dissertation etc.), sample size, gender proportions, population type (military, office worker, university employee etc.), whether the study examined prevalence rates or adverse work outcomes, research methods, year of publication, and finally the lead author. All correlation coefficients were calculated for each study and included with the previous data in a Microsoft Office 2013 Excel spreadsheet. Effect sizes, Nr values and confidence intervals were calculated and compiled into a separate table using the data from the Microsoft Office 2013 Excel spread sheet.

Meta-Analytic Method

The present meta-analytic review defined sexual harassment using the 1995 Fitzgerald et al., model, and was conducted using the Hunter & Schmidt (1990) method in which correlations were meta-analyzed for sexual harassment prevalence rates and each type of adverse work outcome. Confidence intervals were calculated in order to evaluate the accuracy of effect size estimates and to examine the extent in which sampling error was present in the results (Whitener, 1990). All meta-analysis procedures were conducted by the use of a calculator and recorded in a Microsoft Office 2013 Excel spreadsheet.


A breakdown of all studies (issue examined, methodology, participants, and results of the study) used within the present meta-analysis can be found in the Appendix. Results for the prevalence rates of sexual harassment experience are presented in Table 1. Researchers found that sexual harassment was prevalent in the federal workplace, t(55,647) = 94.36, p = <.001 with women (80%) experiencing sexual harassment significantly more than men (20%).

Results for the adverse impact sexual harassment has on federal employees can be found in Table 2. The present research has shown that gender harassment has the greatest adverse effects as reported by employees r = .84 and is positively correlated with sexual harassment. Co-worker satisfaction was found to be negatively correlated with experience of sexual harassment r = -.21. Supervisor satisfaction was found to be negatively correlated with sexual harassment experience r = -.20. Work satisfaction was found to be negatively correlated with experience of sexual harassment r = -.12. Health satisfaction was found to be negatively correlated with sexual harassment experience r = -.15. Lastly, psychological well-being was found to be negatively correlated with sexual harassment experience r = -.18.

The only effect sizes that had a large effect were those found that sexual harassment experience was prevalent in the federal workplace r =.60, and that gender harassment was positively correlated with experience of sexual harassment r =.84. All other effect sizes examining adverse impact on federal employees had an effect, but the negative correlations were statistically small.


The present meta-analysis analyzed the existing research currently available regarding sexual harassment prevalence rates and adverse work outcomes. Researchers utilized the 1995 Fitzgerald et al., model to define sexual harassment, and the results are very similar to past research findings. One strength of the present review is that both females and males were examined as victims of sexual harassment. Prior research has primarily examined females as victims of harassment, ignoring half of the U.S. population.

The present research found that sexual harassment in the federal workplace is still prevalent today. Our findings showing that females are more likely to experience sexual harassment at work which supported our hypotheses. However, this could be due in part to males’ not viewing sexual harassment as serious or harassing behavior and the lack of males reporting sexual harassment to their supervisors (Jackson & Newman, 2004; Stockdale et al., 1999).

Researchers also examined what adverse outcomes sexual harassment has on employees within the workplace. The adverse outcomes examined in this review were co-worker satisfaction, supervisor satisfaction, work satisfaction, health satisfaction, psychological well-being and gender harassment. Gender harassment was shown to have the largest adverse effect on employees and was positively correlated with sexual harassment which supported hypothesis 1b. A possible explanation for this finding is that experience of sexual harassment as a result of a trait as unchangeable as gender would be likely to have a profound impact on an individual’s psychological well-being (Murry et al., 2001; Richman et al., 2001; Snyder et al., 2012).

Co-worker satisfaction, supervisor satisfaction, work satisfaction, health satisfaction, and psychological well-being were all found to be negatively correlated with the experience of sexual harassment supporting our hypothesis 1a. One possible explanation for this finding is that often those who experience sexual harassment and choose to report it do not find support from their co-workers, supervisor or manager (Firestone & Harris, 2003; Fitzgerald et al., 1999; Harned et al., 2002; Snyder et al., 2012). By not receiving supervisory support an individual could quickly lose faith in their co-workers, supervisor, and manager leading to the above outcomes. However, the effect sizes found were small for all adverse work outcomes aside from gender harassment. Therefore, while other negative consequences of sexual harassment are important to consider, they are not as strongly correlated as gender harassment. By examining the impact sexual harassment could have on adverse work-life outcomes further insight will be provided on future directions researchers can take in order to find innovative ways to prevent sexual harassment in the all workplaces. This research can also be utilized by employers for determining what resources companies should make available to their employees in case sexual harassment occurs.

The majority of prior research on sexual harassment has been conducted on females; however, males are also affected by sexual harassment in the workplace. Males were shown to be significantly more likely to experience sexual harassment when they work primarily with women and/or when they have a female supervisor (Jackson & Newman, 2004). Males are also two times more likely to experience same sex harassment (Rosen & Martin, 1998; Stockdale, Visio, & Batra, 1999). Males have also been shown to be greater targets of sexual harassment in certain work contexts (Jackson & Newman, 2004).

The present meta-analysis shows that males experience sexual harassment as well, and in some situations more often than females (Jackson & Newman, 2004). Therefore, when addressing the dilemma of sexual harassment in any workplace, males need to be included as possible victims of harassment. The majority of sexual harassment experience by males is from other males, so sexual harassment training should include scenarios of same sex as well as opposite sex harassment (Rosen & Martin, 1998; Stockdale et al., 1999).


A limitation to the present research is that only studies examining sexual harassment in a federal workplace were included in the meta-analysis. Another limitation is the majority of past research on sexual harassment experience has been conducted in the public sector. Thus, there is a lack of available research conducted in the private sector to analyze. Lastly, the study’s exclusion criteria of including males and females also further limited the number of studies for inclusion, leaving the present meta-analysis with nine studies examining prevalence rates and two studies examining adverse work outcomes of sexual harassment. It is possible that different conclusions could be drawn about the present findings if more research including males and females in the federal workplace were made available.

Implications and Future Research

The present findings suggest that sexual harassment in the workplace, both federal and public, is still a critical topic of concern to employers. An individual’s experience of sexual harassment has been shown to be negatively correlated with several adverse work outcomes which could lead to absenteeism, decrease job performance, job satisfaction, and increase turnover (Fitzgerald, 1993; Gutek & Koss, 1993). Adverse outcomes are not the only consequence of sexual harassment occurring in the workplace. Legal action taken by employees who experience sexual harassment could end up costing organizations substantial resources if cases are taken to court. As an example of the costly effects the total annual cost of sexual harassment in U.S. Army in 1988 was $250,000,000 (Faley, Knapp, Kustis & Dubois, 1999). Numerous consequences from adverse outcomes to legal issues make it imperative to understand how to prevent sexual harassment from occurring in any workplace.

Future research should address both same sex and opposite sex harassment. As previously shown, males and females experience sexual harassment in a work environment differently; therefore, how sexual harassment effects both males and females and the gender of the harasser should be examined (Stockdale et al., 1999; Street, Gradus, Stafford & Kelly, 2007). This could allow for more effective prevention programs which show that both genders can be targets of sexual harassment to be developed and implemented in federal organizations. Also, future research should be conducted on the prevalence rates of sexual harassment and how it impacts transgender individuals. The number of individuals who openly identify as transgender or who are in the process of transitioning are growing; therefore, this is an important research question to address (Budge, Tebbe & Howard, 2010). By developing a better understanding of the consequences of sexual harassment, the financial and performance value of preventing such harmful actions can be displayed to both federal and public organizations.


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