teenA new study suggests cultural factors may control whether teenage girls perceive sexism as an environmental problem or as evidence of their own shortcomings.

That is, although teenage girls of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds still experience sexism and sexual harassment, an individual’s upbringing can determine if the harassment deters self-esteem.

Researchers studied 600 girls between the ages of 12 and 18, from California and Georgia, including young women who identified as Latina (49 percent), White (23 percent ), African-American (9 percent), Asian American (7.5 percent) and multi-ethnic or other (7.5 percent).

The project was conducted by researchers Christia Brown, University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences, and Campbell Leaper, University of California Santa Cruz.

Participants were asked about experiences with sexual harassment and any discouraging comments they received in traditionally male-dominated areas such as math, science, computers and sports.

Ninety percent of girls reported experiencing sexual harassment at least once. Specifically, 67 percent of girls reported receiving unwanted romantic attention, 62 percent were exposed to demeaning gender-related comments, 58 percent were teased because of their appearance, 52 percent received unwanted physical contact and 25 percent were bullied or threatened with harm by a male.

52 percent of girls also reported receiving discouraging gender-based comments on the math, science and computer abilities, usually from male peers, and 76 percent of girls reported sexist comments on their athletic abilities, again predominantly from male peers.

The researchers found that girls have different levels of understanding of sexism and sexual harassment, which may affect reporting data.

Older girls and those from a lower socioeconomic background reported more sexism than did their peers. Latin and Asian American girls reported less sexual harassment than did girls of other ethnic groups. Girls who had been exposed to feminist ideas, either through the media or an adult such as a mother or teacher, were more likely to identify and report sexist behavior than were girls who had no information about feminism.

Girls who reported feeling pressure from their parents to conform to gender stereotypes were also more likely to perceive sexism. Girls who felt atypical for their gender and/or were unhappy with stereotypical gender roles were most likely to report sexism and harassment.

Brown and Leaper note that it is important for girls to be able to identify sexism and sexual harassment as environmental factors, lest they attribute negative experiences to their own faults and suffer erosion of self-esteem. Frequent sexual harassment may lead girls to expect and accept demeaning behaviors in heterosexual romantic relationships, and sexist remarks.

Source: University of Kentucky