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Sexual harassment in the workplace has received a prominent place in the news and media in recent years. The #MeToo movement, which originated in the US, has spurred women across industries, occupations and countries to give voice to the discrimination, harassment and disadvantage they have experienced or witnessed in their various places of work.
In Australia, the results of the 2018 National Survey on Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces found that 23% of women in the workforce have experienced some form of workplace sexual harassment in the last year, compared to 16% of men in the workforce.
Research in the field of social psychology indicates that women in traditionally male-dominated industries such as mining and construction are at an increased risk of facing sexism in the workplace. These findings are based on various factors such as reduced level of social support and social integration in industry (Berdahl, 2007; Bergman & Hallberg, 2002).
So what effect does sexism in the workplace have on women when they represent a minority, and specifically how does this impact important outcomes such as mental health and job satisfaction? A recent study by researchers Assoc. Prof. Rubin, Assoc. Prof Paolini, Dr Subasic and Assoc. Prof Giacomini (2019) from the University of Newcastle, Australia, aims to answer these questions by exploring the relationships between sexism, a sense of belonging, job satisfaction and mental health among women who work in male dominated industries. In essence, they found that an increased sense of belonging may reduce the negative impacts of sexism on job satisfaction and mental health, however this is also dependent on the type of sexism being experienced. Their findings suggest that the negative impacts of sexism can be counteracted by increasing inclusion in the workplace.
The aim of the research study was to examine whether the negative impacts of sexism on mental health and job satisfaction can be reduced by women feeling a sense of belonging in their workplace.
The researchers employed a range of quantitative analysis techniques, drawing on a sample of 190 female members from a large Australian trade union which represented male-dominated jobs such as construction and mining. Workers completed an online survey that measured a number of variables, including sexism, sense of belonging, mental health symptoms, and job satisfaction.
Sexism was measured in two ways: organisational sexism and interpersonal sexism. Organisational sexism relates to gender-based inequality regarding formal aspects of the organisation, such as pay and job stability. Interpersonal sexism relates to sexist behaviors from specific individuals within the organisation, such as sexual harassment and sexual comments.
The results revealed that a sense of belonging plays an important role in mitigating the effects of sexism in the workplace. However, the full extent to which belonging has a positive impact on mental health and job satisfaction outcomes depends on the type of sexism experienced by females (i.e., organisational versus interpersonal). Taking a closer look at the research findings:
Organisational sexism and belonging
The study found that increases in organisational sexism were associated with a lower sense of belonging, lower mental health and lower job satisfaction. However, when a woman felt a sense of belonging in the workplace, this reduced the negative effects of organisational sexism on both mental health and job satisfaction.
Interpersonal sexism and belonging
Increases in interpersonal sexism also led to a lower sense of belonging and lower mental health, however in this instance, there was no impact on job satisfaction. Furthermore, when a woman felt a sense of belonging, this reduced the negative impact of mental health only, but not job satisfaction. The findings suggest that whilst it is important to create more inclusive team environments for women, this should not come at the expense of targeting systemic and organisational-level issues such as pay inequality and inequity in career opportunities.
As organisations around the world continue to grapple with issues related to sexual harassment in the workplace, the findings from this study highlight the importance of inclusion and belonging at a team level, yet also how inclusion plays out for employees at the organisational level. Leveraging the findings from this research, organisations could consider the following actions:
Build more inclusive team practices. Recognise that creating a sense of belonging involves team members at all levels recognising and actively engaging in inclusive behaviours. Leaders make an impact in this space, and so organisations can consider prioritising inclusive leadership training at critical levels of leadership within your organisation.
Rewire organisational systems and processes to be more inclusive. Track moments along the employment life cycle (based on employee feedback and organisational data) to identify where inclusion is lacking (i.e., recruitment, performance management, remuneration), and re-structure these processes to promote inclusiveness as a core component.
Strengthen accountability and recognition for inclusive behaviours. Reducing sexual harassment requires strong and consistent rewards and recognition for inclusive behaviours – especially at senior leadership levels, strengthening the commitment of organisations to achieve positive cultural change.
This research offers new insights into the relationship between sexual harassment (personal and organisational) and a sense of inclusion, suggesting that a focus on promoting inclusiveness and a sense of belonging acts to offset some of the negative effects of sexual harassment.
For the full article, see Rubin, M., Paolini, S., Subašić, E., & Giacomini, A. (2019). A confirmatory study of the relations between workplace sexism, sense of belonging, mental health, and job satisfaction in male-dominated industries. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 49, 267-282. doi: 10.1111/jasp.12577
Berdahl, J. L. (2007). Harassment based on sex: Protecting social status in the context of gender hierarchy. Academy of Management Review, 32, 641-658. doi: 10.5465/AMR.2007.24351879
Bergman, B., & Hallberg, L. R. M. (2002). Women in a male-dominated industry: Factor analysis of a women workplace culture questionnaire based on a grounded theory model. Sex Roles, 46, 311-322. doi: 10.1023/A:1020276529726
Human Rights Commission (2018). National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces. <https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/projects/national-inquiry-sexual-harassment-australian-workplaces>.