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From Gender Microaggressions to Sexual Assault: Measure Development and Preliminary Trends Among Undergraduate Women

  • Author(s): Gartner, Rachel Elizabeth
  • Advisor(s): Sterzing, Paul R
  • et al.
Abstract

Sexual violence is a substantial problem on college campuses, particularly for undergraduate women who consistently report higher rates of nonconsensual sexual contact and sexual harassment during their college careers when compared to the general student population. A wide range of mental and behavioral health concerns are associated with sexual violence, such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, problem drinking, and missing school. A notable gap in the current campus sexual violence literature is its exclusion of chronic gender-based slights and invalidations known as gender microaggressions. Gender microaggressions are defined as intentional and unintentional slights, insults, and invalidations based on gender and most frequently targeting women.

Presently, we lack basic information on the types, frequency, location, and impact of gender microaggressions on college campuses. This dearth of information leaves policy makers, administrators, educators, and researchers ill equipped to confront the causes of campus sexual violence. To address these gaps, this project asks the following research questions: (1) What are the types of gender microaggressions experienced by undergraduate women? (2) What are the past year frequencies of gender microaggressions, sexual harassment, and sexual assault for undergraduate women? (3) Where do gender microaggressions, sexual harassment, and sexual assault occur most frequently for undergraduate women? (4) What is the association between gender microaggressions and mental and behavioral health?

Three studies were executed to answer these questions. First, a qualitative focus group study (N = 23) with UCB undergraduate women was conducted and directed content analysis employed to examine gender microaggressions themes. Second, a cross-sectional measure design and validation study (N = 220) was conducted, implementing exploratory factor analysis (EFA) and bivariate correlations to take the first steps in validating a gender microaggressions measure for undergraduate women. Third, a cross-sectional quantitative study (N = 220) was carried out to examine gender microaggressions’ frequency, location, and correlates. This study began by employing chi-square tests and logistic regression to examine differences in microaggressions, sexual harassment, and sexual assault frequency by race and sexual orientation. The study then used descriptive percentages to explore locations where gender microaggressions, sexual harassment and sexual assault occur. Finally, multiple linear and logistic regressions were used to identify relationships between gender microaggressions and mental and behavioral health variables when controlling for sexual harassment and sexual assault.

For Research Question 1, the qualitative study identified four undergraduate gender microaggressions themes: (1) Assumption of Traditional Gender Roles, (2) Presumed Incompetence (3) Environmental Invalidations, and (4) Sexual Objectification. Important developmentally and contextually specific sub-themes emerged, adding nuance and specificity to the taxonomy for undergraduate women. Three sub-themes were noted under Assumption of Traditional Gender Roles: (1) Caretaker/Nurturer, (2) Women Dominated Occupations, and (3) Weak/“Damsel in Distress.” In addition, Male Dominance emerged as a sub-theme of Presumed Incompetence and University/Infrastructure Invalidations emerged as a sub-theme of Environmental Invalidations. The project employed a measure design process and used EFA to identify the measure’s latent factor structure. The Undergraduate Gender Microaggressions Scale (UGMS) emerged with 18-items and four factors. The factors were (a) Presumed Incompetent (Factor 1 – 8 items), being treated like you do not understand or do not have the capacity to make a substantial contribution; (b) Gender Role Stereotypes (Factor 2 – 4 items), being expected to serve as caretaker or take on administrative roles; (3) Male Dominance (Factor 3 – 4 items), experiencing situation in which men are expected to hold power or serve as the point of reference and women are inferior; and (d) Institutional Invalidations (Factor 4 – 2 items).

For Research Question 2, the frequencies of gender microaggressions, sexual harassment, and sexual assault were examined. Gender microaggressions were ubiquitous, with nearly every participant (99.6%) experiencing at least one form of gender microaggressions. The majority of the sample (87.3%) experienced sexual harassment, with sexual assault experienced less frequently (37.7%). When examining difference in frequency across race and sexual orientation, Asian undergraduate women had lower odds of upper quartile gender microaggressions, sexual harassment, and sexual assault scores. No other significant differences were noted by race or sexual orientation.

Research Question 3 was exploratory and examined the locations where gender microaggressions, sexual harassment, and sexual assault occurred on campus. Gender microaggressions were most likely to occur in classrooms and lecture halls, campus grounds, and on social media while sexual harassment was most likely to occur on campus grounds, in classroom and lecture halls and at fraternity and sororities. Sexual assault was a less frequent experience but was most reported in off campus housing and fraternity and sororities.

For Research Question 4, gender microaggressions had a significant positive relationship to depression, stress, and posttraumatic stress symptoms when controlling for sexual harassment, sexual assault and relevant demographic variables. Gender microaggressions were also positively related to school avoidance and alcohol use when controlling for sexual harassment, sexual assault, and relevant demographic variables.

This dissertation sought to more clearly operationalize and measure sexual violence and gender discrimination within college communities. The refinement of a context (i.e., college campus) and developmentally specific (i.e., undergraduate) gender microaggressions measure is the first step to understand the role of subtle gender discrimination in both sustaining sexually violent cultures and as antecedents to legally actionable sexual offenses for adolescents and emerging adults. Increasing knowledge of gender microaggressions’ prevalence and location has the potential to elevate awareness among administrators, funders, practitioner, and students. Disrupting gender microaggressive climates holds the possibility of improving undergraduate women’s mental health while also creating more positive environments for women to engage fully with the university resources designed to support their success.

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