CAS researcher examines risks for sexual harassment among female graduate students

CAS researcher examines risks for sexual harassment among female graduate students

A new study by Tara Sutton, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, examines the variety of factors that position female graduate students among the most likely populations targeted for sexual harassment.

Sutton’s article on her research, “Individual Vulnerability and Organizational Context as Risks for Sexual Harassment among Female Graduate Students,” was published last month in Social Currents journal.

Sutton said sexual harassment is common among graduate students, with one study finding 86 percent experienced at least one form of sexual harassment victimization. Research also demonstrates that compared with undergraduate women, graduate women are more likely to experience sexual harassment. This greater vulnerability is due, in part, to graduate students’ positions within academia, Sutton said.

Sutton based her research around both feminist theory and a sub-field of criminology— “routine activity theory”—which focuses on the physical and social settings of crimes, offenders, and victims. Routine activity theory posits that a crime is more likely to happen when there is a motivated offender who can take advantage of a suitable target because of proximity and lack of a capable guardian.

“Feminist routine activity theorists have built on the original theory by focusing on forms of women’s victimization rooted in patriarchal norms and by suggesting male power and dominance and misogynistic male peer groups as risks for women’s victimization. In academia specifically, research has shown that women are at a greater risk of sexual harassment partly because academia has historically privileged men,” Sutton said.

Sutton focused on two main categories of potential risks for sexual harassment: individual vulnerability and organizational context. While individual vulnerability accounts for sexual orientation, international status, mental illness and alcohol use, as well as other personal factors lending to a perception of vulnerability, organizational context focuses on larger factors including departmental female ratio, department support, and whether or not a specific field is traditionally male-dominated.

Sutton’s study found that alcohol use, studying in a male-dominated field, and mental illness increased risk for peer harassment while harassment by a professor was elevated among international students and reduced among those reporting to greater departmental support. LGBQ+ status was significant in both categories.

These findings point to the importance of male peer groups in shaping risk for harassment by a graduate student colleague. On the other hand, faculty members seem to seek out women to harass that are likely to be isolated or lack social support. Policy recommendations such as safe spaces on campus for LGBQ+ and international students as well as clear consequences for offenders would help mitigate these high rates of sexual harassment, Sutton said.

Through her work, Sutton offers researched based insights and solutions to this pressing issue of today, paving the way for future women and other marginalized groups to pursue their goals of higher education in safe, accepting environments.

MSU’s College of Arts and Sciences includes more than 5,000 students, 323 full-time faculty members, nine doctoral programs, 14 master’s programs, and 27 undergraduate academic majors offered in 14 departments.  MSU is classified by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as a “Very High Research Activity” doctoral university, the highest level of research activity in the country.  MSU is one of only 120 schools to hold the designation. For more details about the College of Arts and Sciences, visit

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at