Women making history: Views on sexual harassment, from the 1980s to today

This post is one of a series of posts in observance of Women’s History Month.

One of
the first questions about sexual harassment came in 1982 when Glamour magazine
asked women if they had experienced it on the job. Fifteen percent said they
had. In a 1986 Time/Yankelovich question, 26 percent said they had, and in a
Gallup question from 1991, the response was 21 percent. 

In 2017 — after the Women’s March and the “Me Too” movement’s efforts to put the spotlight on harassment and abuse — a number of pollsters asked about it again. In the summer and fall, when several pollsters asked women about workplace harassment, around 30 percent said they had experienced it. In broader questions about harassment or unwanted advances in any circumstance, responses rose to around half. In a November-December 2017 Pew Research Center poll, a majority of both women and men did not see incidents of harassment as isolated occurrences. Two-thirds nationally said they reflected widespread problems in society.

Men and women agree on what constitutes harassment in most areas. In a November 2017 Economist/YouGov battery that asked about possible harassment in 12 different areas, more than 90 percent of men and women said a man exposing himself, taking photos up a woman’s skirt, or requesting sexual favors was always or usually harassment. There were greyer areas. Forty-seven percent of men and 50 percent of women said a man placing his hand on a woman’s lower back was always or usually harassment. Less than 10 percent of men and women said a man asking a woman for a date was harassment.

Allegations of sexual harassment burst into the limelight with the nominations of two men to the Supreme Court: Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh. In the final polls, men and women in 1991 thought Thomas should be confirmed; the nation was divided about Kavanaugh. Partisan differences about his confirmation were greater than gender differences.

Pollsters’ attention span is short, and we have seen fewer recent questions about harassment even as many more cases have come to light. But there is evidence from the polls that the sexual harassment scandals have had significant broader fallout. In a question Gallup has asked irregularly since 2001, the percentage of women who said they were satisfied with the position of women in society dropped to 58 percent in 2018 from 72 percent in 2008, the last time the question had been asked. Another Gallup question that asked about satisfaction with the way women are treated in society dropped 10 points between 2016 and 2018. Among women, satisfaction dropped 15 points, from 61 to 46 percent.