Changing Perceptions of Sexual Harassment in the Federal Workforce, 1987–94


  • The authors wish to thank the Bert Kritzer, Rose Corrigan, Keith Hawkins, Murray Levine, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.

Address correspondence to J. Mitchell Pickerill, 801 Johnson Tower, Department of Political Science, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164, USA. E-mail:


Recent criticisms of sexual harassment law and workplace training policies contend that they have “sanitized” the workplace through their stigmatization of sexual expression that does not amount to actual discrimination. This study assesses some of the empirical foundations for those normative arguments. Using data from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board's 1987 and 1994 surveys, we examine differences over time in federal workers’ perceptions of what types of behavior constitute sexual harassment. The article draws on a sociolegal theory of the endogenous nature of law as well as research on perceptions of sexual harassment. We hypothesize that, because of increased attention to sexual harassment, and to the hostile environment theory specifically, by scholars, judges, and the news media, and related policy changes in workplace training programs, federal workers likely came to view a wider range of sexual conduct as constituting harassment during this time period. The results support our expectations. We also find that sexual harassment training in their agency increased workers’ likelihood of viewing both hostile environment behavior and quid pro quo behavior as harassment.