Dateline: April, 2011, Issue 3

How do jurors respond to cultural explanations of conduct in sexual harassment cases?

Cultures differ in norms of sexual conduct for men and women, and in what is perceived as sexual harassment.

Schwartz and Hunt (2011) investigated how jurors respond to arguments about cultural differences using a hostile work environment sexual harassment case involving a Latina plaintiff. The Latina plaintiff argued that the employer did not take adequate action in response to her sexual harassment complaint against a co-worker, forcing her to quit. To discredit her allegations, the defendant attacked the plaintiff's delayed report and argued that she welcomed the behavior.

All jurors were told that the plaintiff feared that reporting sexual harassment would jeopardize her career. Some jurors additionally heard testimony and argument about Latin American cultural values as the reason for the plaintiff's delayed report. For example, the Latina testified "In my culture, it's normal for men to flirt or express themselves sexually, and it's expected that women will accept it" and "I'm not saying that it's easy for women in the U.S., but by comparison, it does seem like the culture here is more supportive and accepting of women who talk about sexual matters openly."

Jurors not hearing about cultural differences in sexual conduct norms did not spontaneously consider them even though aware of the plaintiff's ethnicity.

Testimony and argument about cultural differences caused a backlash among jurors, leading to more defense verdicts. Only 39% of jurors voted for the plaintiff when they heard testimony and argument about cultural differences, compared to 70% of the jurors not hearing about the cultural differences. Latin American jurors were 1.5 times more likely to vote for the plaintiff than European American jurors.

The researchers conclude that if a culture or its norms are perceived negatively, the use of cultural arguments to help jurors understand a party from another culture can backfire.

Source Schwartz, S.L., & Hunt, J.S. (2011). Considering her circumstances: How ethnicity and cultural relativist arguments affect sexual harassment judgments by undergraduate and community mock jurors. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 29(3), pp. 419-438.