Sexual Harassment a Hurdle for Teen Girls

Teenage Girls Often Subjected to Unwanted Romantic Advances, Academic Sexism, Study Shows

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 15, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

May 15, 2008 -- Despite strides in gender equality most teenage girls continue to experience sexual harassment at home, school, and on the playing field.

A new study shows that 90% of girls report experiencing sexual harassment at least once and more than half have experienced academic sexism regarding their ability in male-dominated fields such as science and math.

Researchers say sexual harassment may take the form of unwanted sexual behavior and sexist comments, and repeated sexual harassment can negatively affect girls' self-esteem, body image, achievement, and beliefs about others.

"This study documents the continued pervasiveness of sexism in the lives of adolescent girls," researcher Campbell Leaper, professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, says in a news release. "When sexual harassment frequently occurs, girls may come to expect demeaning behaviors as normal in heterosexual relationships. And when girls' achievement is discouraged in traditionally male-dominated fields, their potential is limited and society loses potentially talented individuals in important fields such as science and technology."

Sexual Harassment Starts Early

In the study, researchers surveyed 600 girls between the ages of 12 and 18 from California and Georgia. The girls were asked about their views on gender roles and sexism, as well as their personal experiences with sexual harassment. They were also asked about discouraging comments they'd received about their abilities in science, math, computers, and sports.

The results, published in Child Development, showed the vast majority (90%) had experienced sexual harassment at least once. The most commonly reported examples were:

  • Receiving unwanted romantic attention from a male (67%)
  • Hearing demeaning gender-related comments (62%)
  • Being teased about their appearance (58%)
  • Receiving unwanted physical contact (51%)
  • Being teased, bullied, or threatened with harm by a male (28%)

At least 52% of the girls also said they had heard at least one discouraging comment about their math, science, and computer abilities related to their sex.

In addition, more than three-fourths of girls (76%) said they had also heard such discouraging comments about their athletic ability.

The source of sexual harassment and sexist comments was most often close male friends and brothers (25%) and other boys (32%), followed by teachers or coaches (23%) and close female friends or sisters (18%) and other girls (22%).

Parents were not as common a source (fathers 15%; mothers 12%).

The survey also showed that girls who were of lower socioeconomic status reported higher rates of sexual harassment than girls with higher socioeconomic status. Older girls were more likely to report sexual harassment and sexism than younger girls.

Researchers say awareness of gender issues also played a role in how the girls perceived sexual harassment and sexism. Girls who had learned about feminism from the media or people they knew, such as their mothers or teachers, were more likely to recognize sexual harassment and sexism.

Researchers say recognizing when sexism occurs is a crucial first step toward overcoming discrimination. "Otherwise, it is more likely that individuals attribute failure to their lack of ability rather than to the obstacles in their environment," says Leaper.

WebMD Health News



Leaper, C. Child Development, May/June 2008; vol 79.

News release, Society for Research in Child Development.

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