We have all heard it before; sexual harassment is “all about power.” Powerful men, like Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump, tend to harass powerless women. Popular culture has not taught us that powerful women may suffer even more. In fact, it has taught us quite the contrary.
In the popular film Disclosure, starring Demi Moore, a female boss (portrayed by Moore) harasses an employee played by Michael Douglas, almost to the point of ruining his life. In a way, that film crystalized the theory, for the X generation, that powerful women might harass men just as powerful men did to women; again, it all boiled down to power. A quarter of a century later, it is still rare, to say the least, to read a story about a powerful woman who was sexually harassed by men under her.
Yet, according to a new study from the Swedish Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University, women at the top experience harassment more often than women in lower hierarchical positions. Researchers reached this conclusion after surveying female workers in the U.S., Sweden, and Japan.
Despite the significant differences between Swedish, American, and Japanese gender norms, the study found that women supervisors were between 30 and nearly 100 percent more likely to experience sexual harassment, with Swedish workplaces being the safest of the lot.
The researchers had initially expected harassment to occur more often in the case of women with less power, and the results of the study surprised them. Harassment tends to be more prevalent when the majority of subordinates are men.
“When you think about it,” one of the study’s authors told reporters, “there are logical explanations: a supervisor is exposed to new groups of potential perpetrators. She can be harassed both from her subordinates and from higher-level management within the company. More harassment from these two groups is also what we saw when we asked the women, who had harassed them."
A Vulnerable Fortress Awaits Women at The Top
Women at the very top, CEOs and other top executives, rarely experience harassment. Before they get there, however, as they rise from lower to higher positions, sexual harassment tends to become more frequent. It appears that it only becomes less common once they have climbed to the absolute top, when they are no longer in direct and regular contact with a variety of individuals from across their organization.
The authors of the study, which appeared in one of MIT’s journals last December, are Olle Folke, Johanna Rickne, Seiki Tanaka, and Yasuka Tateishi. “Among supervisors, the risk is larger in lower- and mid-level positions of leadership and when subordinates are mostly male,” they wrote. “We also find that harassment of women supervisors happens despite their greater likelihood of taking action against the abuser and that supervisors face more professional and social retaliation after their harassment experience.”
Interestingly, the researchers also concluded that the increased likelihood of harassment as women rise in power “raises the costs for women to pursue leadership ambitions and, in turn, reinforces gender gaps in income, status, and voice.”
Understanding The Power Paradox
Researchers have coined the phrase “paradox of power” to refer to the fact that “rather than reducing exposure to sexual harassment, power in the workplace seems to put women at greater risk.” The Swedish study is not the first one to point in this direction; previous research by sociologists Heather McLaughlin, Christopher Uggen, and Amy Blackstone reached similar conclusions.
The new research has not only focused on how often women at the top are sexually harassed, but also on who perpetrates the harassment, and how the victims respond. The researchers also tracked retaliation against victims who reported the harassment.
Women supervisors appear to be “less likely to formally complain about sexual harassment.” By reporting this type of misconduct, women supervisors “could risk more career and status losses from reporting an incident compared with women employees,” according to the study’s authors.
Survey respondents in Japan and the U.S. were more likely to report harassment if they occupied a supervisory position. In the case of Japanese women supervisors, they were twice as likely to report externally to labor unions, government organizations, the police, NGOs, etc. U.S. female supervisors, on the other hand, were more likely to communicate both internally and externally.
Twenty percent of surveyed U.S. supervisors who suffered sexual harassment took personal action, compared with 14 percent of employees in non-supervisory positions. U.S. supervisors were also more likely to report internally than other female employees. This led the researchers to conclude that “there is no evidence that women supervisors would be more attractive targets of harassment by being less likely to take action.”
Experiments carried out by the researchers further suggested that Japanese supervisors may report sexual harassment less often due to “more negative attitudes among bystanders toward women supervisors' reporting of harassment in Japan.”
The Consequences of Sexual Harassment
When it comes to the consequences of sexual harassment, the researchers found that supervisors tend to face more negative consequences, perhaps because they are often targeted by men in very high positions of power and because they are more likely to speak out and face retaliation. In the case of Japanese women, negative consequences often include more harassment and demotions. In the U.S., however, victims tend to be denied promotions and training.
Sexual harassment in the workplace statistically affects one in every two women. And the new research has shown that making it to the top cannot protect women from this scourge. While the #MeToo movement has radically changed the landscape in some industries, women remain largely vulnerable to sexual harassment, no matter how high up the corporate ladder they may have climbed.
According to the Stockholm University researchers, if we want economic equality between women and men, “it is vital that we grasp the extent to which sexual harassment deters women from seeking leadership roles.” For as long as rising to the top continues to put a target on women’s backs, equality will remain an unattainable illusion.
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