Workplace Sexual Harassment: All Too Common, Yet Completely Avoidable // Stephanie E.V. Brown



In a lawsuit brought forth earlier this year, Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson accused Fox News chairman Roger Ailes of workplace sexual harassment. According to her testimony, Ailes called her a “man-hater,” ignored her complaints of a hostile and sexist workplace environment, ogled and propositioned her, and then retaliated against her by taking away assignments and airtime (Fox News, 2016).

Unfortunately, harassment of women in the workplace is nothing new. These behaviors range from low-intensity incivility all the way up to sexual assault. If not already obvious, we can turn to the literature to learn about the effects of sexual harassment. One meta-analysis (Willness, Steel, & Lee, 2007) linked sexual harassment to physical symptoms like PSTD, anxiety, and depression. It was also linked to low job satisfaction, productivity, commitment, and an increase in leaving one’s job. And while sexual harassment can happen to anyone, findings have indicated that women are more likely to be harassed, and that men are more likely to be the harassers.

And for women of color the harassment is even worse. Minority women are subjected to double jeopardy, experiencing the highest levels of harassment because they are both women and racial minorities (Berdahl & Moore, 2006). Take the case of Rudi Bakhtiar, another Fox News journalist who was all set to be promoted until she was let go after turning down and reporting sexual advances from her would-be boss (Rutenberg, Steel, & Koblin, 2016). Uncivil treatment often causes a person (like Ms. Bakhtiar) to leave an organization if they aren’t forced out (Kabat-Farr & Cortina, 2012), and as minority women are consistently treated worse than their white, male counterparts, this can perhaps partially explain why women of color are underrepresented in many industries, including TV media.

As a graduate student in I/O psychology, these kinds of situations fuel my passion for creating better workplaces. It’s literally my job to ask, “Why does this happen? How could this have been prevented?” Willness, Steel, and Lee (2007) noted that organizational climate was, across the board, the most important predictor for sexual harassment. That is, if the workplace climate allows for people to get away with incivility, harassment, or assault, then that negative attitude will spread to employees throughout the organization (Pryor, LaVite, & Stoller, 1993). It is especially important to note that harassment and assault need to be stopped immediately, regardless of the seniority of the instigator (Porath and Pearson, 2012). Ailes, the (thankfully, now former) chairman of Fox News, was able to infect his company from the top down, acting as a role model for other sexist men to emulate. When the company is run in that fashion, sexism and harassment become business as usual. And as we see from the $20 million settlement between Carlson and Fox News, business as usual can suddenly turn very expensive for the offending party.

In the future, Fox may want to take into consideration that integrating women into all levels of leadership can help prevent a culture of toxic hyper-masculinity that in turn decreases instances of assault and harassment in the workplace (Cortina & Berdahl, 2008). Similar research supports the creation of quality mentorship programs that can help counteract negative side effects of harassment and move towards intervention (Ragins et al, 2015). Finally, training on victim blaming could improve the culture at Fox News as well. It can be very easy for those in power to overestimate their abilities to counteract harassment (Diekmann, Sillito Walker, Galinsky, & Tenbrunsel, 2013). This overestimation can lead one to doubt or blame the victim, as we saw when Eric Trump (son of megalomaniac demagogue Donald Trump) famously said that his sister Ivanka was a “strong, powerful woman,” who would never “allow herself to be subjected to [sexual harassment]” (Scott, 2016). By providing training on empathy and teaching others how to reexamine instances of sexual harassment with a critical eye, employers can help reduce victim blaming and increase the victim’s well being.

And as a pertinent side note – I’m sure there are quite a few of us on here that disagree personally and politically with Gretchen Carlson. With that in mind (and considering some of the stuff she’s said about women, minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, I’m sure it’s more than a passing thought for some of us), I think it’s a wise reminder that no one ever, ever, ever asks to be harassed or assaulted. No one deserves it based on what they think, what job they hold, or who they work for. It’s easy to make quippy remarks on Twitter and in comment sections, but harassment is serious business and something that all women should fight against. It’s my hope that the women working at Fox News come out from under this organizational mess with an increased level of empathy and an understanding of why it’s important to believe the victim first.

Written by: Stephanie E.V. Brown


Berdahl, J. L., & Moore, C. (2006). Workplace harassment: double jeopardy for minority women. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(2), 426-436.
Cortina, L. M., & Berdahl, J. L. (2008). Sexual harassment in organizations: A decade of research in review. In J. Barling & C.L. Cooper (Eds.) The SAGE handbook of organizational behavior. 469-497. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE
Diekmann, K. A., Sillito Walker, S. D., Galinsky, A. D., & Tenbrunsel, A. E. (2013). Double victimization in the workplace: Why observers condemn passive victims of sexual harassment. Organization Science, 24(2), 614-628. doi:10.1287/orsc.1120.0753
Fox News and sexual harassment: A $20 million boost for workplace equality (2016, September 6). The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from
Kabat-Farr, D., & Cortina, L. M. (2012). Selective incivility: Gender, race, and the discriminatory workplace. In Fox, S. & Lituchy, T.R. (Eds.), Gender and the dysfunctional workplace, 120-134. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.
Porath, C. L., & Pearson, C. M. (2012). Emotional and behavioral responses to workplace incivility and the impact of hierarchical status. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42(S1), E326-E357. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2012.01020.x
Pryor, J. B., LaVite, C. M., & Stoller, L. M. (1993). A social psychological analysis of sexual harassment: The person/situation interaction. Journal of vocational behavior, 42(1), 68-83. doi:10.1006/jvbe.1993.1005
Ragins, B.R., Ehrhardt, K., Lyness, K.S., Murphy, D.D., & Capman, J.F. (2015). Anchoring relationships at work: High quality mentors and other supportive work relationships as buffers to ambient racial discrimination. Personnel Psychology, 00, 1-46. doi:10.1111/peps.12144
Rutenberg, J., Steel, E., & Koblin, J. (2016). Retrieved from
Scott, E. (2016, August 2). Eric Trump: Ivanka would not allow herself to be sexually harassed. CNN. Retrieved from
Willness, C.R., Steel, P., & Lee, K. (2007) A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of workplace sexual harassment. Personnel Psychology, 60(1), 127-162. doi:10.1111/j.1744-6570.2007.00067.x

The opinions expressed here represent my own and are not representative of APA Division 35.

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