Workplace drinking and gender harassment linked

03/24/04

ITHACA, N.Y. -- An extra beer or glass of wine during a workday lunch or happy hour may seem harmless. But a new Cornell University study shows that when alcohol consumption in and around the workplace increases, so does the risk of harassment of women by male co-workers.

The study, "Harassing Under the Influence: Male Drinking Norms and Behaviors and the Gender Harassment of Female Coworkers," points to the dangers of workplace cultures that tolerate drinking and offers sobering lessons to both workers and employers. The R. Brinkley Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related Workplace Studies at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations conducted the study, and the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse sponsored it.

The researchers examined the possible links between alcohol use and "gender harassment" -- a form of sexual harassment that involves offensive or degrading remarks and actions, usually directed at women by men. While sexual favors are not elicited, such behavior creates a hostile workplace environment for the women and has been deemed unlawful in the courts under current federal statutes. No sector of the workforce is immune, as shown by recent news stories about gender harassment claims within the U.S. Air Force Academy. The end result can be stiff fines for an organization, disciplinary action or firing of employees engaged in such behavior, and lost productivity and even the job resignation of those being harassed.

"The survey's findings have important implications for the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace," said study co-author Samuel Bacharach, McKelvey-Grant professor and director of the Smithers Institute at Cornell's ILR School. "They suggest that sexual harassment prevention policies may be less effective in work contexts characterized by a strong and permissive drinking culture. In such environments, it may be more useful to focus prevention efforts on changing employee perceptions about the acceptability of drinking during or around working hours."

The researchers surveyed 1,353 blue-collar and service workers (including 236 women) employed in 52 work units and represented by seven different unions in the manufacturing, service and construction sectors. The study's findings showed that women were at greater risk of gender harassment when they worked in places where heavy drinking, particularly on the part of their male colleagues, was tolerated. Specifically, the study found a more-than-twofold increase in the incidence of gender harassment experienced by women for every additional alcoholic drink consumed by the men in their work units during or around working hours.

This link between the gender harassment of women and the drinking behavior of men remained even when controlling for a variety of other factors, such as demographic characteristics or the proportion of women in the work unit.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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