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  January 22, 2002

Sexual Harrassment Victims
Shouldn't Have to Suffer in Silence
Claudia G. Chamberlain

Conducting research that has practical meaning and can lead to social change is the ambition driving a new psychology professor, who specializes in the study of occupational health and stress.

"Social change happens at the level of the judiciary," says Vicki J. Magley, assistant professor of psychology. "Someday I'd like to take my research into the courts as an expert witness."

Magley's research focuses on sexual harassment, particularly the way targets of harassment cope with their experience.

"Sexual harassment in the workplace is much more common than people realize and most of the experiences are quite private," says Magley.

Data show that two-thirds of working women have experienced some unwanted sexual behavior, while 70 percent of men and women have experienced rude workplace incidents.

Finding a Voice
In June, Magley co-presented a paper at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Society in Toronto on what she identifies as a "Catch-22" in the workplace.

The paper, titled "A Catch-22 At Work: Employee Experiences of Resistance and Retaliation," concludes that voicing mistreatment is the right of all employees and organizations should empower them to exercise this right without retribution.

"Rather than framing interpersonal mistreatment in organizations as a personal problem for individuals to resolve, we should hold organizations responsible for managing misbehavior within," the study concludes.

The "Catch-22" dilemma is that in speaking out about mistreatment, employees may trigger social isolation, professional devaluation and job loss, says Magley. In other words, people shouldn't have to suffer in silence.

"Alternatively, employees could endure the injustice in silence, but then their psychosomatic health may suffer."

The answer, says Magley, lies within the power of an organization.

"The leaders of organizations have the power to minimize these difficulties by fostering respectful and fair climates and enforcing protective policies," she says.

Coping Strategies
Magley's research on sexual harassment began when she was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her doctoral dissertation delved into the structure and function of coping with this sensitive and controversial workplace issue.

"One of the interesting things that came out of my dissertation was that the coping mechanisms women used didn't seem to alter the outcome. "You'd like to think that if you asserted yourself, the harassment would stop and that you could move on, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Regardless of the coping, the experiences appear to impact people negatively. That's disturbing."

In general, her ongoing research has disclosed that victims of sexual harassment subsequently endure a series of negative events, such as health-related complaints, increased levels of anxiety, decreased satisfaction with life in general, and a desire to quit their jobs.

"One of the specific areas of research I'm especially proud of looks at how women label their experiences," says Magley.

The co-authored study, "Outcomes of Self-Labeling Sexual Harassment," was published in 1999 in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

"We proposed in the study that the issue of why it is that women who report such experiences generally do not indicate that they've been sexually harassed is an important psychological question, and may provide a path through the nested meanings of workplace harassment," says Magley.

The research involved data from female employees in three diverse organizations and demonstrated that women exposed to such behaviors report similar consequences, whether or not they've labeled their experiences as harassment.

"This pattern of results appears to debunk the 'whiner hypothesis' - that what is discussed as sexual harassment represents women whining about everyday events of little consequence," says Magley.

Career Path
A newcomer to UConn, Magley arrived on the Storrs campus in the fall with husband Peter Baldwin, an assistant professor of history.

During the fall semester, Magley taught a graduate level course on methodology in sexual harassment research; this semester she will teach introductory psychology to under-graduates.

Her interest in psychology was sparked in high school, and she went to college thinking of pursuing either psychology or engineering. That led her into industrial engineering, and then to industrial psychology, looking at workplace processes in different ways. She says she enjoys the scientific approach of psychology and its strong quantitative component.

Prior to UConn, Magley was an assistant professor of psychology at DePaul University. She earned a Ph.D. in social and organizational psychology and a master's degree in social psychology from the University of Illinois, and a B.A. in psychology from Purdue University.

She has served as a social science consultant to municipalities, financial organizations, universities, and the U.S. Eighth Circuit Federal Court, where she conducted studies of the impact of gender on the federal judicial system.

Magley has authored or co-authored 16 journal articles and book chapters, has two manuscripts under review, and 14 manuscripts in preparation. She's presented some 50 papers at national meetings such as the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, the American

Psychological Society, and the International Coalition Against Sexual Harassment.

Since 1991, when she won the Senior in Psychology Student Award, Magley has been the recipient of more than a dozen professional awards and grants.

Charles "Skip" Lowe, professor and head of the psychology department, says Magley is a top-notch researcher and teacher.

"Her research into workplace issues is absolutely outstanding, because it combines good science with good applications," he says.

This semester, Lowe and Magley will jointly teach an introductory psychology course.

Says Lowe, "I put our very best teachers into the introductory class, because if students are only going to take one or two psychology courses, I want them to hear from the best."

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