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Poll: Views on sexual harassment at work divide women by age

Data show that men and women – and particularly younger and older Americans – bring different views on how widespread harassment is and what it looks like.
WASHINGTON, D.C. - JANUARY 21: (L-R) Bindu Singh, 69, who lives in Maryland but is originally from India, her daughter-in-law, Cecilia Singh, 40, who lives in Texas but is originally from Mexico, and her daughter, Suki Singh, 8, march during Women's March On Washington, on January 21, 2017. (Photo by Yana Paskova/for NBC News)Yana Paskova / for NBC News

Sexual harassment and misconduct has now become a continuous theme of news coverage, with new allegations emerging on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.

But as the stream of stories continues, data show that men and women — and particularly younger and older Americans — bring different views on how widespread harassment is and what it looks like. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows the gender and generational differences.

The October poll found that nearly 7 in 10 Americans, 67 percent, believe that sexual harassment happens in almost all or most workplaces. There were differences between men and women on the question, but they weren’t especially stark.

Overall, 62 percent of men and 71 percent of women believe sexual harassment happens at almost all or most workplaces, a difference of 9 percentage points.

Add age into the mix, however, and the numbers look different among both men and women.

Among women 18 to 49 years old, 78 percent say “sexual harassment happens in almost all or most workplaces.” But among women 50 or older, the number falls 14 points to 64 percent, which is below the national average.

Among 18- to 49-year-old men, 68 percent say they believe harassment happens in almost all or most workplaces. But among men 50 or older the figure is 55 percent, 13 percentage points lower.

In other words, gender seems to play a role in how widespread people think sexual harassment is, but age is the bigger divider.

There could be a few reasons for those generational differences. It could be that younger people talk more about harassment with their friends and colleagues. Or it could be that harassment is more commonly aimed at younger people today.

But a key element to understanding the age splits on harassment may be that the members of different generations see harassment differently. People who are 18 to 49 years old have grown up in an environment and in workplaces that are more cognizant of sexual harassment, where workplace training targeting harassment have become commonplace.

There is evidence for that reading of the numbers elsewhere in the poll.

One question asked women whether they had “received an unwelcome sexual advance or other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature at work.” The “yes” responses climbed by age group. Among women 18 to 34 years old, 56 percent said yes. With people 35 to 49 years old, the figure was 44 percent. For those ages 50 or older, 41 percent said yes.

There was no time element in that question, referring to this year or last year; the question covers the entire time of each respondent’s career. For a woman in her 60s, that time period would go back to the 1970s. For a woman in her 20s, that would likely only go back a decade.

Is it possible that there is more sexual harassment in workplaces today than there was 20 or 30 years ago, even as more attention is paid to the issue? Yes. But it’s also possible that the past few decades, mores have changed — inappropriate behavior that was once written off as “boys will be boys” in the office is now viewed as wrong.

Regardless of the reason, however, the generational differences in the numbers suggest that the focus on sexual harassment and misconduct may have a lasting impact in the workplace for years to come. The poll data show the stories that have rocked politics, media and the entertainment industry have impacted both genders, but they have particularly resonated among younger Americans.

Overall, 49 percent of men said the stories of this fall had caused them to think about their own behavior and how they interact with women. And 44 percent of women said the stories made them want to share their own past personal experiences about how they had been treated as a woman.

But with both genders, those figures were much higher among younger people. Among men 18 to 34 years old, 58 percent said recent news stories have caused them to think about how they interact with women. And among women 18 to 34 years old, 55 percent said the string of stories makes them want to share past experiences more.