Women who are both young and attractive are more likely to be believed when making accusations of sexual assault, a new study has found.
The perception among the general public, researchers said, is that women who are perceived to be young, "conventionally attractive" and feminine are more likely to be harassed.
The research revealed that women who do not fit this prototype may face greater hurdles when trying to convince an employer or a court that they have been harassed. These women are also more likely to be perceived as less credible and less harmed by harassment.
"The consequences of that are very severe for women who fall outside of the narrow representation of who a victim is,” says Bryn Bandt-Law, lead author of the study and a graduate psychology student at the University of Washington.
"Non-prototypical women are neglected in ways that could contribute to them having discriminatory treatment under the law.
"People think they're less credible and less harmed when they make a claim, and think their perpetrators deserve less punishment."
The study was inspired by the #MeToo movement which rose to prominence in 2017 when actors accused movie producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and abuse.
#MeToo and related movements empowered individuals to come forward about their experiences of sexual harassment.
The researchers conducted 11 different experiments with more than 4,000 participants.
Participants were asked a series of questions including who they think is sexually harassed, what constitutes harassment and how claims of harassment are perceived.
In five of the experiments, participants read scenarios where women either did or did not experience sexual harassment. They then assessed the extent to which these women fit with the idealised image of a woman, either by drawing what they thought the woman might look like or selecting from a series of photos.
Across all the experiments, participants perceived the targets of sexual harassment as more stereotypically attractive than those who did not experience harassment.
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In the next four experiments, participants were shown ambiguous sexual harassment scenarios, such as a boss inquiring about a woman's dating life.
These scenarios were paired with descriptions or photos of women who were either stereotypically attractive or not. The participants then rated the likelihood that the incident constituted sexual harassment.
When considering a non-stereotypically attractive woman, participants were less likely to label such scenarios as sexual harassment compared to when considering stereotypically attractive women, despite it being the same incident.
Study senior author Professor Cheryl Kaiser, also of the University of Washington, said: "This is why the idea of a prototypical woman matters. Sexual harassment most commonly happens to women.
"When you make a perception of harassment, you also make a connection to womanhood but the way we understand womanhood is very narrowly defined. So for anyone who falls outside of that definition, it makes it hard to make that connection to harassment."
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Researchers say the areas that merit further study of harassment prototypes among women are race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity.
The team are currently exploring whether black women are perceived as less credible and less harmed by sexual harassment. Such a finding would be consistent with criticism from #MeToo founder, Tarana Burke, who has said that the mainstream #MeToo movement has disproportionately centred and benefited a narrow group of women, such as white, conventionally feminine celebrities.
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Overall, the researchers believe their findings help illustrate how laws may not always protect the people they're designed to.
For harassment claims to lead to legal resolution, accusations must be deemed credible, and the incidents harmful.
By recognising that harassment can happen regardless of a person's fit within a prototype, the chances for justice are improved.
Bandt-Law said: "If we have biased perceptions of harm for non-prototypical women, it will drastically change their legal outcomes.
“If they're not being believed, they're effectively being silenced."
The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.