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Power Impacts Sexual and Gender Harassment

Updated: Feb 13, 2019


When assessing whether your workplace culture and climate foster sexual harassment, it is critical to understand that power plays a central role in this consideration.


We know power can be used in many ways – on a continuum from motivating people and driving organizational change, to manipulating or dominating others. It is the sense of feeling powerful that is relevant to understanding how the individual’s characteristics interact with the organization’s culture to contribute to sexual harassment occurring.

We find sexual harassment occurs more frequently in male-dominated fields and organizations where negative gender biases and stereotypes exist.

Many studies show that organizational conditions are the most powerful predictors of workplace sexual harassment. Individuals are more likely to harass if they feel powerful – powerful due to their position/status, or powerful due to their being part of the majority in the workplace.


Feeling powerful changes the way we think and perceive others. Power can blind us to considering the perspectives, feelings, or thoughts of other people. Powerful people have two characteristics that can contribute to their harassing behavior:


Powerful people tend to develop empathy deficits, and are less able to read other people’s emotions and take other people’s perspectives. In fact, individuals placed in power even for a short time exhibit lower empathy. Important to note that empathy is

People who feel powerful often behave impulsively, as if workplace ethics don’t apply to them.

Power and Assumption of "I am right"

Imagine! The situational variables of high status or power affect the way we perceive and interact with others. For example, powerful men misperceive social cues leading them to infer sexual interest from women around them that doesn’t exist. When combined with reduced empathy, powerful men usually assume their perceptions of sexual interest are accurate.


The powerful tend to have greater confidence in themselves and rely less on others. They increase antisocial behavior, social distance and make judgments that may aggressively promote their own decisions, disregarding others.


Research reveals that the powerful have more self-focused thoughts and prioritize themselves above others. These powerful people assume they are correct and are less likely to take the advice of others, assuming their judgments are more accurate, yet make less accurate decisions.


Power and Moral Disengagement

Being treated as important, having authority or influence - high levels of social power - leads many people to behave unethically. At these times, individuals act differently than they would in the absence of power. “Moral disengagement” occurs when individuals set aside their self-sanctions, such as guilt, shame or self-condemnations, and act in an immoral way. The powerful don’t reflect on their actions, assuming they ‘are right,’ have reduced empathy, and believe they are not doing anything inappropriate or wrong.

Moral disengagement – a phenomenon that occurs when we do behave in accordance with our moral compass – can occur in response to our environment. When our friends or peers promote bias or harassing behavior, we are more likely to act in a biased or harassing manner out of a desire to feel included and engaging in behavior because ‘everybody is doing it.’ We find sexual harassment occurs more frequently in male-dominated fields and organizations where negative gender biases and stereotypes exist.


Gender Harassment

Gender harassment is the most prevalent type of sexual harassment and consists of verbal and nonverbal negative, crude, demeaning, or derogatory ‘jokes,’ stereotypes, or attitudes that are directed at women. These attitudes and actions are evidenced in negative ‘job fit’ (i.e., selection), negative job attitudes, social-organizational withdrawal, and, subsequent negative performance evaluations of women. Gender harassment attitudes and actions are characterized by the absence of sexual advances.


Typically men act negatively or hold denigrating or hostile attitudes toward women so they can sustain power and the resultant competitive advantage. In fact, in settings where women do hold power, men often use sexual harassment “as an equalizer against (powerful) women” to control and maintain their dominant positions. Power is the motivating factor, not sex.


Many men operate in social and organizational structures that may unintentionally support the mindset and behaviors of gender discrimination. For example, workplace power hierarchies may perpetuate social myths, such as the fallacy that women inherently lack the ability to lead at the highest levels. These negative attitudes and behaviors toward women permeate the organization’s culture and can promote gender harassment.


Many men operate in social and organizational structures that may unintentionally support the mindset and behaviors of gender discrimination

Organizational and Individual Factors Interact


Firms often focus on sexual harassment as a problem of the individual, rather than also resulting from organizational factors. Because most sexual harassment interventions take place once the harassment incidents have occurred, their impact is limited. In fact, over 75% of people who experience sexual harassment do not report it, and for those who do, most acknowledge that reporting adversely impacts their jobs or future career trajectories.

Individual variables (e.g. feeling powerful) and organizational factors (e.g. fear of retaliation, or feeling safe in reporting or secure the harassment will be addressed) interact. Organizations can use powerful tools to address and change the culture – use executive coaches, require leaders to be role models, develop thoughtful policies, conduct meaningful training, monitor effectiveness of these programs, and hold harassers accountable.


Today’s leaders recognize their organization’s climate and power structure can contribute to the occurrence of harassment. For significant change, leaders must demonstrate their continuing commitment to creating a culture and power structure that does not tolerate harassment and provides an environment for those who experiencing harassment to feel safe in reporting it and not fear retaliation.

A culture supporting gender diversity is more productive, and retains its talent while increasing greater employee well being.




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