UO study finds dangers in high school gender harassment

A University of Oregon study has tied repeated exposure to gender harassment in high school to trauma-related mental health issues among university undergraduates.

The study found 97 percent of women and 96 percent of men in a pool of 535 undergraduates had experienced gender harassment at least once in high school. Mishandling of the situations by schools, an institutional betrayal, also emerged as a possible independent factor.

The study, led by UO doctoral student Monika Lind of professor Jennifer Freyd’s Department of Psychology lab, published Aug. 19 in the journal PLOS ONE.

“We found that the more gender harassment and institutional betrayal teens encounter in high school, the more mental, physical and emotional challenges they experience in college,” Lind said, adding that educators and researchers should pay more attention to these issues.

The study’s publication came soon after Lind’s three-minute thesis “Isn’t High School Bad Enough Already?” won second place in the American Psychological Association’s national competition. In 2019, her presentation won the UO’s three-minute thesis competition.

Gender harassment, a type of sexual harassment, is characterized by sexist remarks, sexually crude or offensive behavior and the enforcement of traditional gender roles. Institutional betrayal, a label coined by Freyd, a co-author on the study, is the failure of an institution to protect people who depend on it.

Academic researchers, Freyd said, previously had not focused on these issues in high schools, where students are emerging into early adulthood from the physical, neurological and psychological changes occurring in adolescence.

“Education-focused institutional betrayal research has considered the experiences of undergraduate and graduate-level college students, as well as those of faculty members,” she said. “There also has been work on these issues in the military and workplaces, but we don’t know a lot about gender harassment or institutional betrayal in adolescence.”

In the project, participants completed a 20-item gender harassment questionnaire about their high school experiences and a 12-item checklist about their schools’ actions or inactions. Trauma symptoms were assessed with a 40-item measure focused on post-traumatic symptoms such as headaches, memory problems, anxiety attacks, nightmares, sexual problems and insomnia.

An analysis that considered gender, race, age, gender harassment, institutional betrayal, and the interaction of gender harassment and institutional betrayal significantly predicted trauma-related symptoms, but, Lind said, a subtle surprise emerged.

“We expected to find an interaction effect showing that the relationship between gender harassment and trauma-related symptoms depends on institutional betrayal, such that people who experience high gender harassment have different levels of symptoms depending on how much institutional betrayal they experience,” she said. “Instead we found that gender harassment and institutional betrayal are independently related to trauma-related symptoms.”

That issue, Lind said, needs further research. It’s possible, she said, that the student pool was too small or that the measures used were not robust enough to definitively link the two factors. Another possibility, she noted, is that the study’s focus on institutional betrayal missed the potential impacts of institutional courage.

How schools might respond to the issues identified in the study should begin with listening to students, Lind said.

“Schools should engage in self-study, including interviews, focus groups and anonymous surveys of students, and they should take students' reports and suggestions seriously,” she said. “When you're trying to intervene in adolescence, you'll do better if you demonstrate respect for teens' autonomy and social status.”

UO doctoral student Alexis A. Adams-Clark, a member of Freyd’s lab, was the study’s third co-author.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications